THE EVIDENCE PRO & CON:
WAS JOHN THE BELOVED DISCIPLE?
The Testimony of Scripture Regarding John
There is no evidence John ever claimed to be the author of the fourth gospel, so the fact it came to bear his name was not his fault. That was caused by others erroneously attributing it to him.
Certainly the Apostle John cannot be blamed for the mistakes of others and he obviously is not available to testify on this issue. But God’s word has preserved a body of clear and convincing evidence that is able to set the record straight in this instance.
Let us begin by looking to see what the Bible reveals about John, the brother of James and son of Zebedee. We will contrast those facts with the facts in scripture about “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. As we do time and again you will see the evidence indicates that John and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” were two different people.
We will be analyzing a lot of data about “the disciple whom Jesus loved” as we go through this process. You will also be learning many of the facts that are needed to establish the true identity of this “other disciple” as we take the time to learn exactly how the evidence ‘clears’ John.
How Humble Was the Apostle John?
The belief that John was the author of the fourth gospel is typically defended with this excuse: ‘John didn’t identify himself as the author because he wanted to be humble.’ Is this reasonable?
John named himself five times in the Book of Revelation. Does this mean he was more prideful (or less humble)? Surely not. But this contrast does argue against the idea the same man also wrote the fourth gospel – John’s identity was repeatedly noted in the Book of Revelation, while in the fourth gospel the identity of the author was repeatedly obscured. Moreover, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is not the most humble-sounding self-description. If it were not part of scripture the author’s use of this designation might actually seem to be quite immodest. Rather than refer to himself by repeatedly mentioning that Jesus loved him, if this writer had just used his name would it really seem less humble? (Those who try to attribute this gospel to John offer no logical reason why John would have sought to conceal his identity. But it turns out that something recorded in scripture about the actual author gives us at least one reason why he might avoid identifying himself by name.)
The notion that ‘humility was the reason that John did not use his name’ has other shortcomings. Consider what the Bible tells us about John and his brother. Jesus named them, “The sons of thunder” (Mk. 3:17). We are told that they sought power to call fire down from heaven to consume people (Lu. 9:54). They also proposed that they should be the ones sitting on the right hand and left hand of Jesus in his kingdom (Mk. 10:35-40). Does that sound like humility? Their fellow apostles did not seem to think so for it goes on to say, “when the ten heard it they began to be much displeased with James and John” (Mk. 10:41). Clearly, it was not humbleness on the part of John and his brother that caused this indignation among the rest of “the twelve”! Rather, it was a lack thereof.
Of course, this does not mean that John was never humble. But the foregoing facts were brought up merely to show that the Bible does not give us any reason to believe John was unusually humble. Prior to the day of Pentecost at least, it seems that humility was not John’s strong point. Although the presence of the Holy Spirit after Pentecost naturally would have led the apostles to be more humble that does not permit us to assume unfounded actions on the part of John or any other apostle or disciple.
John was named five times in the Book of Revelation and some of the other writers of scripture named themselves in their books but that does not mean they were not humble. In addition, nothing in scripture indicates the Apostle John had reason to, or ever tried to, conceal his identity. So, the notion that ‘the author of the fourth gospel is referred to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” just because John wanted to be humble’ turns out to have absolutely no scriptural support whatsoever.
A Glaring Oversight?
A simple truth can sometimes go unnoticed but when we realize it or when it is pointed out to us then we wonder how we could have ever missed it. Consider, for example, the other books of the Bible that are traditionally attributed to the Apostle John. Guess what is missing from all of them? None of those books ever call the Apostle John “the disciple whom Jesus loved”! Neither does any other book in the Bible. But if, as the tradition of men claims, the Apostle John wrote the gospel that bears his name, then what can explain this glaring contrast?
Those who claim that the Apostle John wrote the fourth gospel lack a plausible explanation as to why the identifying term “Jesus loved” and this key relationship were never associated with John by any writer of scripture. Moreover, those who believe that both the fourth gospel and the Book of Revelation were written by the Apostle John cannot explain why he named himself in one book and not the other. Then again, it might just be that John was not called the one whom “Jesus loved” anywhere in scripture simply because John was not “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. So perhaps this “other disciple” was someone else, someone other than “the twelve”.
Why Include John but Exclude the One Whom “Jesus Loved”?
The other gospels treat John and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” very differently. John and his brother upset the rest of the apostles on at least one occasion (Mk. 10:41). Yet the other gospel writers had no problem including John. Excluding references to John the Baptist, John was named twenty times in their gospels. (He was referred to only once in the fourth gospel and we will consider this later.)
The other gospels talk of Jesus taking aside “Peter and James and John” (Mt. 17:1, Mk. 14:33, Lu. 8:51, et al.) and each one mentions other things about John. Time and again the first three gospels note John’s presence and/or his actions at various events. So, the writers of those gospels were more than willing to talk about John’s involvement in Jesus’ ministry. But there is something incredibly peculiar about this. Do you see the problem this presents?
The other three gospel writers never refer to the one whom “Jesus loved”, the “other disciple”, etc. As was noted earlier, they do not mention him even when we know that he was present (i.e., Fourth gospel 18:15-16 as contrasted with Mt. 26:58, Mk. 14:54, & Lu. 22:54-55). So, while the other gospel writers do mention John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is conspicuous by his absence from their books. If he was John, then this inconsistent treatment presents a problem. Did the other three gospel writers freely mention John, except for all those times when the fourth gospel happens to mention “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, the “other disciple”, etc? How could they have known when to leave him out? Even if they all had a copy of the fourth gospel to know when it referred to this unnamed disciple it does not follow that they would omit all mention of him if he was John. However, if they knew he and John were two different people, then this dissimilar treatment is understandable.
Also, Matthew 27:56 tells us, “the mother of Zebedee’s children” was present when Jesus died (but never mentions her son John). Yet “the disciple whom Jesus loved” was at the cross. So, those who say he was John are inevitably forced to believe that this author felt the presence of John’s mother was worthy of mention but her son the Apostle should be left out of the same account. Is that reasonable? In Matthew 20:20, “the mother of Zebedee’s children” was also mentioned. But there the author included “her sons” (John and James) and their conversation with Jesus (Mt. 20:20-24). So, since John was included with his mother when this author named her earlier, would he have named her while ignoring John (in his account of Jesus’ death) if John had been there?
Does the work of the other gospel writers support a conclusion that the “other disciple, whom Jesus loved” and John were the same person? No, it does not, and those who claim that John was the “other disciple” cannot explain this discrepancy.
The other three gospels omit the one whom “Jesus loved”, but we find many references to John in those gospels. This distinct treatment suggests that these were different people, not the same individual. Conversely, if they were two different people, then it makes sense that we would find the gospel writers treating them differently.
The Relationship Between Jesus and John
It has been taught by some that Jesus had an ‘inner circle’ of disciples because the Bible records three times when only “Peter and James and John” were permitted to accompany Jesus (Mt. 17:1, Mk. 13:3 & 14:33, Lu. 8:51). These three occasions were mentioned briefly in the last section. No doubt, being selected to be with Jesus at these moments was a privilege that Peter, James, and John enjoyed over the rest of the disciples.
We need to consider John’s inclusion in this so-called ‘inner circle’ because this idea has been used by some as a rationale for supposing John must be “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. They say this means John had a special relationship with Jesus, which then leads them to assume the phrase “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is talking about the Apostle John. This, unfortunately, is not good logic nor is it scriptural.
First, John wasn’t alone with Jesus on those three occasions. Thus, if being included in those events does imply an ‘inner circle’ relationship, then that is also true for Peter and James. In any case, nothing suggests that John’s relationship with Jesus put him in a class above Peter and James or that John’s relationship with Jesus was otherwise unique among the apostles.
Jesus did choose Peter and John to prepare his last Passover (Lu. 22:8). However, this one verse is not enough to justify teaching that Peter and John were the two closest disciples of Jesus. Regardless, many do believe the two closest disciples of Jesus were Peter and John, but this is because they have already been taught John was “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. This idea is so pervasive most do not notice when circular reasoning is used to argue for John being “the disciple whom Jesus loved” – e.g., ‘Peter and John were the closest ones to Jesus and Peter wasn’t “the other disciple”, so it must be John.’ While, it is true Peter was not “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (Fourth gospel 13:23-24, 20:3 & 21:20), this line of reasoning still tells us nothing about John because the whole argument rests on a false premise.
While superficial arguments can help to sell the idea that John was the one whom “Jesus loved”, the evidence suggests otherwise. In fact, there is no biblical reason to assume this anonymous disciple was an apostle or that he was one of the three men that joined Jesus on the three occasions that were discussed above. As you will see, the author called himself the “other disciple” for a very good reason – because he was “other” than “the twelve”.
Peter Was Foremost Among the Twelve
Peter was the first disciple who was focused on, Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep, Jesus called Peter blessed, an angel mentioned Peter by name on resurrection morning, and it was Peter who gave an answer to the mockers on the Day of Pentecost (Fourth gospel 1:42 & 21:15-17, Mt. 16:1, Mk. 16:7, Acts 2:14). It is apparent from these and other passages that Peter was the apostle who stood out among “the twelve”. One would expect Peter to stand out from the rest of “the twelve” because that fits with what the scriptures reveal about him. Yet, this cannot be said when it comes to John. When Jesus was arrested, his disciples fled (Mt. 26:56, Mk. 14:50). After that, Peter at least found the courage to follow Jesus (Fourth gospel 18:15, Mt. 26:58, Mk. 14:54, Lu. 22:54), although his three denials did begin soon thereafter.
Among “the twelve” apostles it was not John but Peter who had a notable relationship with Jesus (but, as noted earlier, Peter was not “the disciple whom Jesus loved”). Before Pentecost John was not singled out in this way in scripture and while Jesus did take aside Peter, James, and John three times, John’s actions in the four gospels do not suggest he was a cut above the rest of “the twelve”.
Conversely, the scriptures do imply that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” was a cut above the rest of the disciples, and we will go into detail about this later. Furthermore, a unique and very close relationship with Jesus is precisely what the term “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is acknowledging. Do the three times when Jesus took aside Peter, James and John provide a basis to claim John was the one whom “Jesus loved”? It would be a huge stretch to make such an assumption but without it the case for John goes nowhere.
The Behavior and Character of John
Now we will compare the character of John to what we are told about the “other disciple, whom Jesus loved” (and remember we are talking about the pre-Pentecost Apostle John). First, let’s consider the behavior of John during one of the key events in Jesus’ life. The Bible reveals that when Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane, he specifically asked for John’s support. Matthew 26:37 says Jesus, “took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee and began to be sorrowful and very heavy”. Then Jesus had a simple request, “watch” (Mt. 26:38, Mk.14:34).
Sadly Peter, James and John could not even stay awake for Jesus while he spent time in prayer. When Jesus returned and found them sleeping, he made his dismay clear when he said to Peter, “could ye not watch with me one hour?” (Mt. 26:40, Mk. 14:37). Jesus left to pray again, and John let him down a second time. When Jesus came back that time, he “found them asleep again” (Mt. 26:43, Mk.14:40). The last time he stepped away to pray, they fell asleep also (Mt. 26:45, Mk.14:41). John acted like his fellow apostles when things were calm and the three of them failed to stay awake and watch. So, why would he have acted differently from them after the trouble started? The ensuing trial and crucifixion of Jesus were very traumatic events and, during that period, the rest of the apostles (excluding Judas) would not have been exempt from being gripped by the same fear that ultimately drove Peter to deny he even knew Jesus (Mt. 26:69-74).
Matthew 26:37-45 and Mark 14:33-41 give us a sense of just how much Peter, James, and John disappointed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane that night. Jesus knew Judas had betrayed him and he knew he would soon be killed. But Jesus’ urgent requests were not able to rouse Peter, James, and John to action. Immediately following that series of failures by the three so-called ‘inner circle’ apostles, an armed and hostile mob showed up, seized Jesus, and hauled him off to trial.
If John could not manage to “watch” as Jesus had requested at Gethsemane, why would anyone think John abruptly changed and began to act unlike his fellow apostles after Jesus was seized? There is no reason to believe John acted any differently than the way the rest of the apostles acted on that night. But the “other disciple” did act differently that night. We are told he, “went in with Jesus into the palace of the high priest” (Fourth gospel 18:15) and at the cross the following morning, scripture tells us Jesus saw “the disciple standing by, whom he loved” (Fourth gospel 19:26). So, this disciple most likely stayed in the vicinity of Jesus in the period of time that transpired in between these two verses.
What would an unbiased jury conclude if they compared the behavior of the “other disciple” to that of the Apostle John – who had been unable to even stay awake for Jesus earlier on that same night?
The Bible Presents a Contrast
The Apostle John let Jesus down three times on the night that Jesus was arrested. But, later that same night, the “other disciple” showed up and went in with Jesus and, the following morning, the disciple “whom he loved” was standing at the cross of Jesus. This is a stark contrast. Given the foregoing facts ask yourself, Does the evidence really suggest John and the “other disciple” were the same person, or is it indicating they were more likely two different men? If we set aside the John idea (that non-Bible sources lead everyone to take for granted) and just compare scripture with scripture, what answer do we find the Bible pointing to?
The loyalty exhibited by the “other disciple” sets him apart from his fellow disciples. Moreover, Jesus entrusted his mother to this unnamed disciple at the cross (Fourth gospel 19:26-27a) and it says, “from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home” (Fourth gospel 19:27b). (“Unto his own” translates a term that the author also used in 16:32, where he clearly tied it to a change in location. So, 19:27 indicates they departed from the vicinity of the cross at that point.) Then on resurrection morning this disciple was the first man at Jesus’ tomb. Furthermore, when he entered into the tomb scripture tells us he, “believed” – the first disciple after the resurrection to do so (Fourth gospel 20:2-4 & 8). Although all of this does speak well of the “other disciple”, it does not in any way suggest this person was John. On the contrary, the facts in evidence indicate the “other disciple” and John were two different individuals, because they behaved differently!
“And They All Forsook Him and Fled”
It is true the “other disciple” was not the only one to show some courage after the disciples fled on the night Jesus was arrested. Peter also showed up that night to follow Jesus. However, he remained outside, warming himself by a fire (Fourth gospel 18:18, Mk. 14:54b & 14:67, Lu. 22:55-56). Then he denied Jesus (Fourth gospel 18:25, Mt. 26:70-74, Mk. 14:67-71, Lu. 22:57-60). After denying Jesus, Peter recalled Jesus’ prophecy of this and he “went out” and “wept bitterly” (Mt. 26:75, Lu. 22:62). This all occurred before Jesus was taken to Pilate and while we are told Peter left the scene of Jesus’ trial, this is never said of the “other disciple”.
Nevertheless, we do need to think of both the “other disciple” and Peter as returning when they “followed Jesus” that night. This is because of some things Jesus said earlier that evening. At one point he told his disciples, “ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone” (Fourth gospel 16:32). On the Mount of Olives a little bit later he said, “All ye shall be offended because of me this night” (Mt. 26:31, Mk. 14:27). Of course, he was correct. In Mark 14:50 we are told what happened just before Jesus was led away to the high priest. It says, “And they all forsook him and fled.”
So, we should be careful not to assume that Peter and the “other disciple” did not flee the scene at Gethsemane, as did the rest of the disciples, and yet we are told these two “followed” Jesus on that same night. Although this might appear to be a discrepancy in the scriptures, it is not.
With regard to Peter, we are told he followed Jesus “afar off” (Mt. 26:58, Mk. 14:54, Lu. 22:54). This could be an indication Peter was keeping a safe distance between himself and Jesus. On the other hand, Peter might have been following “afar off” as a result of fleeing at first, and then returning to follow, after the mob had taken Jesus away.
Is it plausible that Peter might vacillate like this? Well, after finding the courage to follow Jesus, Peter soon denied even knowing Jesus. In addition, consider Peter’s vow to Jesus earlier that evening. Jesus had said, “All ye shall be offended because of me this night” (Mk. 14:27). But, Peter objected to this, and confidently singled himself out as being more reliable than the rest of the disciples. His reply was very adamant, “Although all shall be offended, yet not I” (Mk. 14:29). Jesus then responded by foretelling Peter’s three denials of him that were to come later that night (Mk. 14:30). Regardless, Peter continued to insist Jesus was wrong. Mark 14:31 records Peter’s rebuff of Jesus’ prophecy, “But he [Peter] spake the more vehemently, If I should die with thee, I will not deny thee in any wise”.
Is it reasonable to suggest Peter might have remembered his boastful words after he fled? Yes. Whatever the reason, it is clear that after he initially fled with the rest of the disciples, Peter eventually followed Jesus that night. Of course, this still leaves us with this same apparent dilemma regarding the “other disciple”. Did he flee or did he follow? As you will see later, there is an answer to this seeming discrepancy for the “other disciple” also.
Courage Under Fire
When we are careful not to force the identity of John upon the text, our eyes become opened to questions about the unique character of “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. Why did he behave differently (as compared to the rest of the disciples)? After the rest of the disciples fled, how was it that this man found the courage to follow Jesus? And what gave him the fortitude to stick with Jesus that night, when even Peter finally threw in the towel and left?
If Peter, James, and John couldn’t even stay awake when Jesus asked them to pray, what could have motivated this “other disciple” to follow Jesus into his trial, and to stand by the cross until the care of Jesus’ mother was assigned to him by Jesus?
These questions raise even more questions. Is there anyone in the Bible that we could expect to exhibit these characteristics? Does scripture give us enough evidence to explain why the “other disciple, whom Jesus loved” behaved the way he did?
As you will soon find out, the Bible is able to answer all of these questions. First though, let us remove any remaining doubts about whether or not John was “the disciple whom Jesus loved”.
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