The beloved disciple – the missing years.

In his book “Jesus and the eyewitnesses”, the theologian and bible scholar Richard Bauckham argues, persuasively in my view, that the four New Testament gospels that have comedown to us actually represent mainly eyewitness accounts of the life and deeds of Jesus. This is chiefly indicated by a particular literary device – the inclusio – in which a particular disciple or eyewitness appears at the start and end of the events that he or she is claimed to have witnessed. As such this hypothesis is a welcome corrective to what seems to have been the prevailing critical belief that the gospels were the result of a reworking of various traditions about Jesus by early Christian communities. Bauckham is, in his gentle way, quietly scathing of this concept using phrases such as “the imaginary Johanine community“. It has always seemed to me that such theories have resulted from the sceptical presumptions of liberal scholars themselves, rather than from a proper study of the text, and it is nice to have someone of the status of Richard Bauckham to reinforce my own personal presumptions that in the first instance the biblical texts should be taken at face value and assumed to be reliable.

Whist Bauckham argues his case for all the gospels, a large part of the book is concerned with the Gospel of St John. He argues, again very persuasively from my perspective, that this represents the eyewitness testimony of the one identified in the text as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, and who he further identifies as the John the Elder of the writings of Papias, rather than with John the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve disciples listed in the other gospels. This John seems to have been well connected with the religious authorities in Jerusalem and died at an advanced age in the latter years of the first century, probably in Ephesus, writing the gospel sometime before his death. He is also probably the writer of the three Johanine epistles, which have much in common linguistically with the gospel.

Now, if we assume that Bauckahm is correct, this leads to quite a significant issue. The beloved disciple was clearly present at some of the most important stages in Jesus life, from the early calling of the disciples, through to his death and resurrection, and was clearly very close to Jesus, but yet does not, in any explicit way appear in any of the other gospels, or in the account of the life of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles, Indeed he does not appear to have become a recognised figure in the early church until late in life, when he is recorded in Papias and Polycrates. This absence is actually a very good argument for identifying the beloved disciple with John the Son of Zebedee (who certainly was around during Jesus’ ministry and death, and during the early years of the church), and, although I am loathe to admit it, for a community reworking of the Johanine tradition that eventually resulted in the gospel. So, assuming Bauckham is correct in his deductions, why does John the beloved disciple not appear in the synoptic record?

Bauckham himself gives one possible solution to this problem, although that results from a consideration of the case of the raising of Lazarus, which is only found in John’s gospel and not in the synoptics. He argues that this is a case (along with others in all the gospels) of protective anonymity. In other words, the raising of Lazarus is deliberately omitted from the synoptic accounts because it would have placed him in a position of danger because of the animosity of the Jewish authorities at the time when these were written, if he had been included and identified. By the time the gospel of John came to be written (perhaps two decades after the synoptics) the danger would have passed, and in all probability the major characters on both sides had died. The same reasoning could be applied to the beloved disciple himself, particularly if he was well connected with the religious establishment. There is indeed some tradition that this is the case, and a phrase in Polycrates suggests he was actually, at some point, the high priest (which Bauckham suggests is an erroneous back reading and identification with John, a member of the high priestly family in Acts 4). But if the beloved disciple was indeed close to the Jewish establishment,, then to be identified publicly as one of the disciples and a member of the early church would have been very dangerous, and his lack of mention in the synoptics and in Acts might be a simple recognition of this fact.

But there is another possible, and perhaps more disturbing explanation. As has been noted above, from the nature of the gospel it is likely that the beloved disciple was well connected with the Jerusalem religious establishment, with detailed knowledge of the workings of the Sanhedrin – both personally and through Nicodemus, who is again only mentioned in St John’s gospel. It seems to me possible that after the resurrection he became one of those who tried to hold on to the Jewish traditions whilst also following the teachings of Jesus. As such he, and perhaps others would have become objects of suspicion, particularly as more and more gentiles became believers. Whilst not saying that he was one of those urging circumcision that attracted the considerable ire of St Paul, nonetheless it would not be surprising that he and others in his position were omitted from the synoptic accounts and the Acts of the Apostles. In such a scenario it was perhaps only after the split between the church and Judaism became absolute post AD 70, and the emotions that drove the conflicts recorded in the Pauline epistles had cooled, that John the elder, the beloved disciple, would once more be able to take his place as one of the surviving eyewitnesses of the life and death of Jesus. If this were indeed the case, it makes the graciousness and lack of rancour of his gospel the more remarkable.

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