A Better Bible Study Method, Book One
THE GOSPEL OF JOHN OR NOT?
The One “Jesus Loved” and the Last Supper
A misperception about Jesus’ last Passover has tended to give credence to the idea that John could be the author of the fourth gospel. It stems from the fact that the Bible says “the disciple whom Jesus loved” was the one who “leaned on his breast at supper and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee?” (Fourth gospel 21:20).
Since scripture tells us Jesus “cometh with the twelve” (Mk. 14:17) and “sat down” with “the twelve” (Mt. 26:20, Lu. 22:14), many have assumed the beloved disciple had to be one of “the twelve”. Complicating this, there are also many Last Supper paintings that help instill an image in our mind of Jesus seated at a table with “the twelve”, having a private supper with no one else in the room. These artist renditions and an erroneous assumption have led many people to accept a faulty conclusion.
Note that the Bible never says “the twelve” were the only ones present with Jesus at that event. Nowhere is it said that they dined alone, nor is there anything to indicate that Jesus’ other disciples were kept away. Is there any reason to believe that Jesus and “the twelve” dined alone that last Passover? Not unless we read a constraint into the text that is not in Matthew 26:20, Mark 14:17, or Luke 22:14.
Keep in mind that it is wrong to assume that someone is not present at an event just because a passage of scripture doesn’t mention him (see Ch. 2; also cf. Fourth gospel 19:39-40, Mt. 26:59-60, Mk. 15:46, Lu. 23:53).
Earlier it was pointed out how it would be a mistake for us to think Peter was alone on the night he followed Jesus into the palace of the high priest simply because no one else is named in the reports of this event found in Matthew, Mark, and/or Luke. Peter was not alone when he entered the palace of the high priest that night, and yet first three gospels all omit the “other disciple” – even though he was the one who got Peter in the door! (Also, as will be shown in a moment, the testimony of Acts 1:21-22 proves “the twelve” were not the only disciples who accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry.)
There are other examples but the point has been made. We must resist presuming too much or building an argument from silence lest we miss the truth. Since the gospel writers knew how to specify a limited attendance, we must not assume that those who are mentioned were the only ones at an event, unless the Bible itself specifies that restriction.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
The scriptures do not state that “the twelve” were alone with Jesus the entire evening of his last Passover. The next logical question then becomes, do we find anything in the Bible implying that others might have been present? The answer is yes. There are several things that suggest this.
First off, Jesus and his disciples were guests in someone else’s home that night. Earlier that day “the disciples came to Jesus, saying unto him, Where wilt thou that we prepare for thee to eat the passover? And he said, Go into the city to such a man, and say unto him, The Master saith, My time is at hand; I will keep the passover at thy house with my disciples” (Mt. 26:17-18). What is missing is any justification for assuming the occupants of that home were supposed to vacate the premises.
Moreover, the Bible lets us know Jesus was accustomed to dining with others. The residents of those households where Jesus ate were included, not excluded. Mark 2:15 says, “as Jesus sat at meat in his [Levi’s] house, many publicans and sinners sat also together with Jesus and his disciples”. Also Luke 11:37 states, “a certain Pharisee besought him [Jesus] to dine with him: and he went in, and sat down to meat”. We also see this when Jesus was in Bethany six days before that Passover. We are told, “There they made him a supper, and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him” (Fourth gospel 12:2).
This suggests other questions. Who worked at that Passover supper? Scripture says Peter and John had gone earlier in the day and “made ready the passover” (Lu. 22:8-13). But, who served the food and who cleaned up? Jesus and his disciples were house guests at the time. So, isn’t it likely their host took care of those details? And isn’t it also probable their host would have dined with them? (Fourth gospel 12:2, Lu. 7:36, 10:38-40, 11:37 & 24:29-30 confirm this is the case.)
Since the Bible never said “the twelve” were the only people present with Jesus at that supper, why should we believe Jesus and “the twelve” spent that entire Passover evening alone by themselves?
Not Alone at the Passover
Other passages likewise indicate “the twelve” were not alone with Jesus that night. In Acts 1:21-26 a replacement for Judas was selected from a group that Peter qualified as “men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21-22). Clearly then, “the twelve” were not the only ones with Jesus during his earthly ministry! This fact is rarely discussed but these words reveal that, besides “the twelve”, other disciples also followed Jesus throughout his ministry. So, why would we conclude they were barred from the supper if they were welcomed before and after it?
Also, in identifying his traitor Jesus said, “It is one of the twelve that dippeth with me in the dish” (Mk. 14:20). In the gospels “the twelve” is used only of those named “apostles” by Jesus (Lu. 6:13). “Disciples” refers to any of his followers, including some or all of “the twelve” (cf. Fourth gospel 6:66, Lu. 19:37). For example, following the supper we see Jesus at Gethsemane with “his disciples” (Fourth gospel 18:1). This included the apostles, minus Judas. But it surely would have also included the apostle candidates of Acts 1:21-22 and we know the apostles were not the only ones there with Jesus, because we are told of a “young man” who was still with Jesus when all the rest had fled (Mk. 14:50-51). Immediately after the supper he was with Jesus and the disciples. Did he just show up or did he arrive with them? If he accompanied them, then he was with them earlier and that would imply he had been with them at the supper.
If “the twelve” were the only ones with Jesus, then why would he need to include the stipulation, “one of the twelve”? “The twelve” is a limiting term. If no one else was there, wouldn’t Jesus have said, “one of” you? In fact the only other time Jesus used the term “the twelve”, he did precisely that. It was when “the twelve” affirmed their commitment after many “disciples” forsook Jesus and he responded, “Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?” (Fourth gospel 6:66-70). [The Greek here reads, “you the twelve”.] Thus, when Jesus said the traitor was “one of the twelve” – not “one of you” – it indicates “the twelve” were a subset of those who were there. (Moreover, Jesus used the term, “one of you” earlier at the supper (Mt. 26:21, Mk. 14:18). So when he later went on to say his betrayer would be “one of the twelve” (Mk. 14:20) that crucial detail no doubt brought relief to those disciples who were not part of “the twelve”.)
Jesus also said, “with my disciples”, when he sent word about who would be joining him (Mt. 26:18, Mk. 14:14, Lu. 22:11). He did not say, “the twelve” and no verse says he excluded those loyal disciples who Peter said, “companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us” (Acts 1:21). But we do find Jesus and Peter saying things that point to others being present at the supper.
“After” the Supper?
If Jesus sat down to supper with “the twelve” and the one whom “Jesus loved” joined them later, then he wasn’t one of “the twelve”. The sequence of events in the fourth gospel seems to indicate that is what occurred, so we will take time to focus on this.
For example, notice how the fourth gospel’s author begins his report on the events of that night, “And the supper being ended…” (Fourth gospel 13:2). Ended? Does the record in his gospel start at a later point than the other gospels do when they report on that night? As you will see, the answer is yes, but not merely by reason of this verse.
(Various Bible versions translate this verse differently because of conflicting opinions about the word tenses involved. However, instead of trying to choose between the opposing opinions of Greek scholars, let us rather look again to the Bible to see what it can tell us.)
Luke 22:17-19 tells us Jesus, “took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves: For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come. And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me”. Keeping this in mind, one will find that the next verse is extremely relevant to this discussion.
Luke 22:20 continues, “Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood which is shed for you”. Did you catch when this occurred? It was “after supper”! [In the Greek it reads, “also the cup after having supped”.] The Bible provides a confirmation of this sequence of events in First Corinthians 11:25. There we read, “also he took the cup when he had supped, saying this cup is the new testament in my blood”. [Again the Greek says, “also the cup after having supped”.]
Therefore, it can be seen that the timing of events that night (particularly what happened “after” the supper) has scriptural relevance. Next we’ll learn how this pertains to the anonymous author’s gospel, and see why understanding the sequence of events helps us to identify “the disciple whom Jesus loved”.
Where Is the Lord’s Table?
The church places great significance on the memorial custom referred to as Communion and/or the Lord’s Table. In First Corinthians 11:26 it says, “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come”. Therefore, this emphasis is appropriate. Moreover, whenever Christians think about the Last Supper, the bread and the cup usually come to mind first.
The gospel accounts of that night focus on that solemn event, but only in three of the gospels. The fourth gospel makes no mention of these things! Why would the one whom “Jesus loved” have left the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup out of his gospel account, especially since he wrote so much about that night?
While Matthew 26:20-29, Mark 14:17-25, and Luke 22:14-38 give us the details about the supper, the fourth gospel devotes five whole chapters to the events of that night (Fourth gospel 13:3 - 17:26) – much more than the other three gospel writers combined! Yet, in spite of that, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” was the only gospel author to omit the Lord’s Table. Obviously, this was not because it was unimportant. So, why is it missing?
The gospels each report different things, so the fact that this author did not include the bread and the cup is not a problem. However, his omission of this Last Supper event adds credence to the idea that he was not one of “the twelve”. This event may have been left out of this author’s gospel simply because he was not present when it occurred. But the Bible does not tell us why this author omitted it, so we cannot be sure. Nevertheless, this omission is understandable if the author joined Jesus and the rest of disciples after they had shared the bread and the cup – and that would also explain why his report of that evening’s events begins after the supper.
This author also doesn’t mention that Jesus sent two disciples to “prepare” the Passover, but the other three gospels all refer to this in varying detail, all ending with, “and they made ready the passover” (Mt. 26:17-19, Mk. 14:12-16, Lu. 22:7-13). Yet the unnamed author’s omission of this item should not come as a surprise, since this omission is also consistent with an account that starts at a later point that day than the other three gospels do. Now let’s look at what this author’s gospel does say.
The Foot Washing Incident
After noting it was in Judas’ heart to betray Jesus, the first thing the author of the fourth gospel reports about the events of that Passover night is, amazingly, Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet. “He [Jesus] riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel and girded himself. After that he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet” (Fourth gospel 13:4-5).
Here again, the biblical record is suggesting “the supper”, or at least a key part of it, had ended, since this begins with Jesus rising, “from supper”. [The literal Greek reads, “he rises from the supper”.] Despite this, some say they deduce just the opposite, supposing from this passage that the supper had not yet started. They infer this because they begin with the presupposition Jesus would have done this foot washing before the meal. But, it turns out the Bible does not support this conclusion.
For example, Luke 11:37 tells of a similar situation when a Pharisee asked Jesus to “dine with him: and he [Jesus] went in, and sat down to meat”. Then the next verse notes, “And when the Pharisee saw it, he marveled that he had not washed before dinner” (Lu. 11:38). So keep in mind the Bible indicates that it may not have been customary for Jesus to wash before eating.
Also, in Matthew 15:2 Jesus was asked, “Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread”. Mark 7:5 puts it this way, “Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?” So, apparently, washing prior to eating was not their usual routine.
These passages imply that Jesus was not in the habit of always washing before eating, and that his disciples behaved likewise. (Similar divisions exist today. Some people learn to wash their hands before using the restroom. This differs from most Westerners, who are more accustomed to washing their hands after using the restroom.)
Given what the Bible tells us about that night, it is apparent Jesus washed the disciples’ feet after the supper, not before it. Jesus may have done so, but scripture never notes where he actually washed prior to eating, hands or feet. So, while the first item recorded in this author’s gospel from that Passover is the foot washing, this is still consistent with the other facts that indicate his account of that evening begins “after” the supper.
Finally, consider that after Jesus had washed the feet of his disciples, it says he, “set down again” (Fourth gospel 13:12). [The Greek says, “having reclined again”.] “Again”? Here the author’s use of the word “again” reveals Jesus had already been sitting down earlier that night – before the foot washing occurred.
“Not of You All”
The Bible tells us Jesus washed the feet of “the disciples” (this was not limited to the feet of “the twelve”) (Fourth gospel 13:5). Then, after Jesus sat down again, he said, “I speak not of you all: I know whom I have chosen” (Fourth gospel 13:18). Here he contrasts a larger group, referred to as “you all”, with a subset, which he called “chosen”. (And we know “the twelve” were “chosen” (Fourth gospel 6:70, cf. Lu. 6:13).) However, if “the twelve” were the only ones who were present, then what distinction was Jesus making here?
Some may think these words were meant to exclude Judas Iscariot. Yet Luke 6:13 tells us Jesus, “called unto him his disciples: and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles” and it goes on to list Judas by name (Lu. 6:16). We also find Jesus saying, “Have I not chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?” (Fourth gospel 6:70). Therefore, we see Judas was “chosen”. So, if Judas was “chosen”, then who was Jesus referring to when he said, “you all”? Jesus’ words here are one more indication he and “the twelve” were not alone during that supper, as here again he refers to more than just “the twelve” whom he had “chosen”.
The Sequence of Last Supper Events
If “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is not required to be one of “the twelve”, then the facts seem to imply the following scenario. Early that day, Jesus sent Peter and John to prepare the Passover. Later, he arrived with and sat down to supper with “the twelve”. After the supper, where the account of the fourth gospel begins, Jesus got up and started to wash the feet of his disciples. When he finished washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus sat down again and only then is “the disciple whom Jesus loved” introduced, sitting next to and leaning on Jesus.
The idea that the one whom “Jesus loved” must be one of “the twelve” presents irreconcilable problems (more on this later), but the key thing to realize is that this idea is not dictated by scripture. We’re told that Jesus “cometh with” / “sat down” with “the twelve” (Mt. 26:20, Mk. 14:17, Lu. 22:14). Yet honest reflection forces one to admit that these verses don’t limit attendance at the Last Supper to Jesus and “the twelve” – and the gospel writers did know how to specify a limited attendance when that was what they actually intended to do (Mt. 14:23, Mk. 5:37 & 9:8, Lu. 8:5 offer some of the many examples of this).
A Hidden Key in the Book of Acts
Besides his betrayal of Jesus, Judas Iscariot was unique among “the twelve” for another reason. The Bible tells us Judas went to the “chief priests” to betray Jesus (Mt. 26:14-16, Mk. 14:10-11, Lu. 22:2-6). However, in addition to becoming a traitor, Judas gained another distinction at that point.
Judas’ conspiracy with those “chief priests” sets him apart from “the twelve” in that those priests got to meet Judas. Nothing in the Bible specifically indicates the high priest would have known, or even recognized, any of “the twelve” other than Judas. Once you realize this, you can grasp the importance of a verse that is found in the Book of Acts. Besides the evidence that has been presented thus far, the writer of the Book of Acts recorded facts that can help us to conclusively prove the Apostle John was not the unnamed “other disciple”.
Acts 4:1-23 recounts what happened to Peter and John following the healing of a crippled man. Peter and John were seized and brought before the “rulers, and elders, and scribes, and Annas the high priest, and Caiaphas…” (Acts 4:5 & 6), so they could be questioned about this miracle. If you’re wondering how this helps to prove the Apostle John was not the “other disciple”, then pay close attention to the reaction of the high priest and those rulers just a few verses later.
The high priest, rulers, elders, scribes, etc. “gathered together” and began their interrogation of Peter and John (Acts 4:5-7). Peter’s answer to their question is recorded in Acts 4:8-12. The very next verse describes their reaction to Peter and John.
Acts 4:13 says, speaking of the high priest and those rulers, “when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marveled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus”.
Why did the high priest and the rest marvel? To begin with, they discovered that Peter and John “were unlearned and ignorant men” (Acts 4:13). [These two points in the Greek read, “unlettered” and “uninstructed”.] Along with whatever Galilean accent Peter and John may have had, it is also possible their vocabulary, clothing, and/or mannerisms could have all contributed to the idea that Peter and John lacked a formal education. Also, the Bible indicates that regional traits could be easily discerned by the people of that day (e.g., Mt. 26:73, Mk. 14:70, Lu. 22:59).
Regardless, Acts 4:13 points out what really shocked those leaders was seeing Peter and John (whom they judged to be “unlearned and ignorant”) exhibit such “boldness”. Instead of cowering before the educated men who would judge them, Peter and John proclaimed the truth and stood openly for the name of Jesus, charging those rulers with his death and proclaiming God had raised him from the dead, while they credited Jesus with being responsible for the healing miracle that had occurred (Acts 4:9-10).
During the encounter recorded in Acts 4:5-12 those leaders were learning elementary facts about the men who were before them. Acts 4:13 also says, “they took knowledge of them [Peter and John] that they had been with Jesus”. [In the Greek this reads, “they recognized them that with Jesus they were”.] So, the telltale discoveries made by those rulers during this event make it clear that Peter and John were not recognized by, or familiar to, the high priest and his fellow religious leaders.
Therefore, the biblical evidence lets us know the high priest and the other rulers first became acquainted with Peter and John during that inquest. On top of this keep in mind Acts 4:6, which explicitly names both “Annas the high priest, and Caiaphas” as being among those who were present at the time.
The Apostle John and the High Priest
In the preceding section we saw the reaction of the high priest and the other religious rulers was a response to new information. It was when Acts 4 was actually happening that the high priest and the others with him learned the things which led them to conclude Peter and John: (a) were “unlearned and ignorant men”, and (b) “had been with Jesus”.
Here we see the high priest learning things which he would have already known if he had been previously acquainted with the two men who were standing before him. So, these facts offer conclusive proof the high priest did not know John (or Peter) before this encounter.
Acts 4:13 also lets us know the Apostle John cannot be the “other disciple”. In order to show how this is true, we will compare Acts 4 with the record of scripture from the night Jesus was arrested and taken away to be falsely accused.
We are told Jesus was taken “to Annas first” (Fourth gospel 18:13). Then we read about two disciples that followed Jesus, “And Simon Peter followed Jesus and so did another disciple” (Fourth gospel 18:15). [The Greek here states, “Now there followed Jesus Simon Peter and the other disciple”.] The words that follow this, however, ultimately ‘clear’ John, for they tell us, “that disciple was known unto the high priest”. It seems God wanted to highlight this point, for his inspired author elected to emphasize this fact by repeating it. In the next verse we read, “Peter stood at the door without. Then went out that other disciple, which was known unto the high priest, and spake unto her that kept the door, and brought in Peter” (Fourth gospel 18:16). Therefore, scripture makes it clear the “other disciple” was known to the high priest. This “other disciple” could get into the palace, and furthermore, he was responsible for getting Peter past the doorkeeper.
Consequently, the Apostle John could not possibly have been the “other disciple” because John was not known to the high priest (Acts 4:13). (Note: since both Annas and Caiaphas were present during the events of Acts 4 this holds up no matter which one was high priest during Jesus’ trial.)
Prior to Acts 4:13, nothing in the Bible would suggest the Jewish leaders were acquainted with John, or were aware of his association with Jesus. In contrast to this, the “other disciple” was “known” to the high priest, who therefore would have reason to be aware of his association with Jesus prior to the night of Jesus’ trial. Moreover, something was said on that night which indicates the “other disciple” was publicly associated with Jesus before that night. Yet this was not true of Peter, as the question of the doorkeeper reveals.
We are told, “the damsel that kept the door” asked Peter, “Art not thou also one of this man’s disciples?” (Fourth gospel 18:17). The word “also” was a reference to the “other disciple” who had just talked with her (Fourth gospel 18:16). Thus, even “the damsel that kept the door” was aware the “other disciple” was associated with Jesus. But as you now know, John’s association with Jesus was not known to the high priest until Acts 4:13.
If Not John, Then Who?
The evidence presented so far has shown the Apostle John was not the “other disciple, whom Jesus loved”. Now that you are aware of the facts, you know the John tradition cannot hold up under biblical scrutiny. The truth is scripture never justified believing John was “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. Also, unless one makes the assumption Jesus was alone with “the twelve” throughout his last Passover, nothing would require the one “whom Jesus loved” to even be one of “the twelve”.
If “the disciple whom Jesus loved” was not the Apostle John, then who was he? The Bible can answer this question if we will search the scriptures and rely on the testimony of God’s word to lead us. This is what we will begin to do now. Indeed, many facts point to the identity of this author, from proof of his relationship with Jesus, to details that suggest a possible motive for this author hiding his identity.
There is one and only one person in the Bible who can be shown to reasonably fit with everything scripture says about this unnamed “other disciple”. As we weigh the facts that reveal the identity of the one whom “Jesus loved” it will be shown how each piece of biblical evidence concerning the author of the fourth gospel points to one very unique – and very famous – friend of Jesus.
Nevertheless recognize the case against the John idea is not dependent on the case that follows. If there is a man in jail for a crime and we uncover proof he did not do it, we do not hold him in jail until we find out who did do it. We let him go. Likewise, if biblical evidence is able to prove the “other disciple, whom Jesus loved” was not John, then we ought to admit our mistake and let go of that false tradition – whether or not we know who this person was. Still, there are some who will act as though it is okay to continue promoting the John idea so long as they object to some point in the next part of this study. But that is not okay. Whoever the one whom “Jesus loved” was, he was not John – because that tradition actually causes the Bible to contradict itself, as the testimony of God’s word has already shown.
- A Better Bible Study Method on YouTube
- Free Bible study eBook versions