Could “the Disciple that Jesus Loved” Have Been a Woman?

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23 June 2021  |

Christians do not accept the non-canonical gospels as inspirational authority. However, they serve as important primary sources in the history of the early church. A text from Gospel of Thomas suggest that a female disciple may have been the disciple that Jesus loved.

Tradition

The idea that John the son of Zebedee is the beloved disciple is based on tradition. The internal Biblical evidence points elsewhere to the “beloved disciple”. The entire investigation about this disciple requires a hermeneutic of suspicion.

This is what we have to show that John is the “beloved disciple”.

In John 21: 20, ff., Peter turns and sees the disciple whom Jesus loves following them. The text says that it is this disciple who reclined next to Jesus and enquired about who would betray him. Peter sees him and continues to interrogate Jesus concerning this disciple. Then the author of the Fourth Gospel says: “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.” The assumption is that John wrote the Fourth Gospel, therefore John is the beloved disciple.

But in fact we do not know who wrote the Fourth Gospel. Even the commentary saying: “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things…” appears as a comment by the actual author about the ‘beloved disciple”. This suggests that the beloved disciple, an eye witness, was the source of the author’s work.

Gospel authorship

We do not know who wrote any of the Gospels. The canonical gospels are anonymous; no name was originally signed on any of them. The names we see there were inserted through editorial process to grant them authenticity. (This does not add or subtract from their inspiration). These were guesses that may or may not be accurate.

For example, to attribute the first listed gospel to Matthew a Jew flies in the face of internal evidence. In chapter 21:1-9, “Matthew” has Jesus mounting two animals and riding into Jerusalem on them. This is because the author is using the story to fit the Zechariah oracle: “…your king comes to you; …  humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9 NRSV) One would think that a Jewish author would be acquainted with Hebrew parallelism which means he would recognize that the donkey and the colt are one and the same animal in the Zechariah oracle. But he believes they are two animals, so he crafts the story to fit this idea. (Again, this does not subtract from its inspiration. The gospels are sermons that draw lessons from the life and teachings of Jesus)

When we read both the canonical and non-canonical gospels, it does not make sense that John would be the “beloved disciple”. Yes, he was among the three who stood with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration. He was said to be in an inner circle, but nothing much else is said about him. He plays no outstanding role in the Jesus Movement. Peter would better fit that profile, but it is Peter who is interrogating Jesus about this mysterious disciple: “Lord, what about him?”. And Jesus’s answer casts a shroud of mystery around this disciple. Even Peter’s query broaches the point of jealousy, or even suggests that he sees this disciple as a gadfly, or a hanger on.

An authentic disciple?

Incidentally, this is not the only incident in early Christian writings that witnesses to Peter interrogating Jesus about a particular disciple, and even questioning the authenticity of the disciple among other disciples. We see that in the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene respectively. And the Fourth gospel itself tells us of three people especially beloved by Jesus: Martha, and her siblings Mary and Lazarus (John 11:5). Nowhere else do we hear of any other disciple being beloved by Jesus. The Fourth Gospel is also the only gospel that speaks of “the beloved disciple”. When Jesus addressed the “beloved disciple” at the cross, only one of those three beloved is listed as being present at the cross.

The accounts in these non-canonical gospels register the same attitude of jealousy/disdain on the part of Peter. The only difference in these non-canonical gospels is that they actually name the somewhat mysterious disciple. This is the same one of the three siblings beloved by Jesus that was actually named as present at the cross when Jesus said: “Woman behold your son.”

Why does the Fourth Gospel refer to this disciple as a “he”, and a “son”? Here is the hint:

Simon Peter said to them, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males.  For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven (Gospel of Thomas, 114).

How may this inform us as we seek to read between the lines of the Mary Magdalene story?