The Beloved Disciple:
His Name, His Story, His Thought
by Vernard Eller

This publication was originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Grand Rapids, MI: 1987). Some revisions have been made.

Bible selections are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1989 (NRSV) by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This work may be freely reproduced and distributed provided that that no changes are made, no revenues are collected beyond the nominal cost of media, and credit is given to the author and House Church Central. Any other use requires the written permission of the author. Citing this material on other Internet sites is encouraged, but is to be done only by providing a hypertext reference to this file on this server.

Table of Contents


STUDY ONE: The Beloved Disciple: His Name and His Story

  1. Opening the Case (as Holmes would)
    1. The Problem
    2. The Method
  2. Jesus' Disciples: A Comparative Analysis
    1. The Gospel according to Mark
    2. The Gospel according to Matthew
    3. The Gospel according to Luke
    4. The Fourth Gospel (commonly known as John)
  3. The Galilean Twelve of the Synoptics and the Beloved Disciple of the Fourth Gospel
    1. The Historical Eschatology of the Synoptics
    2. The Divine Communication of the Fourth Gospel
  4. The Creation of the Fourth Gospel
    1. The Source and the Writer--Dividing the Labor
    2. John bar Zebedee--Unlikely Candidate
  5. The Name of the Beloved Disciple
    1. Lazarus and the Jewish Intelligensia
    2. Lazarus and Fourth Gospel Theology
    3. Do "Lazarus and Sister Mary" Equal "Beloved Disciple and Mary Magdalene"?
    4. Lazarus in the Beloved Role

STUDY TWO: The Beloved Disciple: His Thought

  1. Sacrament as "Mystery" Thinking
    1. Intellectualist Mysticism (Gnosis)
    2. Ecstatic Mysticism
    3. Peak-Experience Mysticism
    4. Ecclesiastical Mysticism
  2. On Giving the Beloved Disciple His Say
    1. The Fourth Gospel Prologue (1:1-18)
    2. The Lord's Supper without Sacraments (13:1-30)
    3. The Woman at the Well (4:1-26)
    4. Bread--and the Eating of It (6:1-59)
    5. Chapters One, Four, Six--and Beyond
    6. An Assist from Søren Kierkegaard
    7. The Flesh as a Communications Unscrambler
    8. An Assist from Martin Buber, Too


There is no way the matter could have been kept secret, yet very few people know that the Gospel we call "of John" neither names nor gives any action to the "John" whom the Gospel presumably is "of." The one and only verse coming anywhere close is Jn. 21:2, which lists the seven followers of Jesus who were present at his resurrection appearance on the seashore, and includes "the sons of Zebedee."

No one named "John" is to be found (excepting "John the Baptist," of course)--yet the Gospel is quite explicit about just who is the source of its information (and in that sense the author of the work). It is "the disciple whom Jesus loved," whom we hereafter will refer to as "the Beloved Disciple." And it is this person who now is to be the subject of our study as we set out to discover his name, his story, and his thought. In order to keep us from jumping to conclusions before we have seen any evidence, I will always call him "the Beloved Disciple" (never "John") and always call his Gospel "The Fourth Gospel" (never "The Gospel of John").

In time, we will come through on our promise to name him by name, tell his story, and expound his thought--though it will take us a goodly while to get to that point. However, I will take it very badly if readers start turning immediately to the back of the book in an effort to get at the answers. The intent and purpose of this book is not particularly to arrive at those answers but to conduct a study which, in the process of getting to those answers, can afford us much good biblical education. The Sherlockian solving of the Mystery of the Beloved Disciple is only a "come-on." So the response now expected is that you "come on"--without cheating.

Whether this book be read by an individual or used as the basis for a group study (it should work either way), the hope is that things will proceed step by careful step-the very way Mr. S. Holmes used to build his cases. You will need at least a New Testament (pick your version; I am using the NRSV, although without prejudice toward any other version)--and a pipe, magnifying glass, and deerstalker hat only if you like "atmosphere." If they happen to be available, a "parallel of the Gospels" and a concordance might also prove handy.

Particularly in the early going, the "old pros" from among us Bible students can breeze along at a great rate--it will be old stuff to them. At the same time, the "rank beginners" better plan on putting one slow foot after another, taking time to look up the Scripture references and check that they actually do say what I say they say. This ought not be tedious. The case is, rather, that you will be encountering new ideas ("I never knew that before!"), ideas which will take a little digesting and getting used to. "Learning Bible" will begin with page 1, instead of coming all at once with the way-down-the-line naming of the Beloved Disciple. (For a starter, you have already learned that the Gospel of John never names its supposed author--John the son of Zebedee--haven't you? And that fact you can check out by reading the entire Gospel through on your own.)

A number of pretty fair Bible scholars already have expressed the opinion that this present book is reputable, helpful, and interesting. However, that does not mean it is "scholarly" in the customary sense of the term. My own hope is that it can be scholarly without being scholarly--its "unscholarliness" lying in the fact that I never make any effort to consult authorities, collect learned opinions, or enlist outside experts to bolster one point or another. Understand, it's not that I have anything against this modus operandi; it's simply that I have chosen not to employ the method here. In the reviewing of the book is where the "scholars" will have a chance to get even for my having ignored them.

But here I'm going all the way with Sherlock himself--namely, working the case entirely from "internal evidence," fathoming the truth simply from the clues at hand. Did Holmes ever have to resort to help from outside experts? Of course not, and no more will we. We can crack this thing with just what the New Testament and particularly the Fourth Gospel can tell us about themselves, with just what the Beloved Disciple tells us about himself. And the big advantage, of course, is that this puts all of us on the very same footing--the old pro, the rank beginner, any reader of the book whatsoever. Each of us has the same access to every clue (all the data). All we have to do is figure out what these clues mean.

This book consists of two separate studies--the first dealing more with the Beloved Disciple's identity and personal history, second more with his theology. Each of the two studies came into being in a rather funny way (as with most of my stuff) and quite independent of the other. In fact, both had been complete for some time before I even caught on that they I even caught on that they could go together to form a book. (I would suppose very few of you can appreciate what it must be like always to be writing without out having any idea what you are doing.)

Yet, in the case of the first study, it is providential (I guess) that, in my spring~semester college class called "Introduction the New Testament," our treatment of the Fourth Gospel always comes last, just before summer vacation. (Yes, I do know that Revelation comes last in the New Testament, thank you. But I’ll teach things my own way, if you don't mind.) Well, in that unit of study, a point I try most strongly to make is this: What simply will not do is to try to read the New Testament as though it presents four Gospels that pretty well parallel and support each other--each telling what is essentially the same story in essentially the same way, each complementing and filling in the others to produce what can be taken as one gospel account. That "confluencing" of the streams will work fairly well with the first three Gospels (the Synoptics), but making the Fourth Gospel flow in the same channel can be done only at great violence to the Gospel itself. It clearly was never meant to be so treated. If we are to make sense of it at all, we must deal with it as a self-contained entity in its own right.

Though in that class the end was upon us and the time all too short (as always), I did get the point well enough made for at least some students to pass the test. Yet, with the kids gone and me having nothing better to do, my somewhat absentminded professorial brain kept right on teaching into the summer. It got an idea of how to let the respective texts show for themselves just how different the Fourth Gospel is from the Synoptics. I thought it might be smart to get some notes into black and white (actually my word processor does green on black) so I would have them when the Fourth Gospel came around again a year later. But wouldn't you know, before I could get away from that word processor (I was at it for the better part of a month), I had keyed in the very file that in time printed out as the text which, within a page or two, you will be reading. The only problem was that my "notes" were too substantial for an article and not substantial enough for a book and so had to be left on disk as a "neither." (I did use them in class the next year, however.)

I didn't even know that the second study was going to concern the Fourth Gospel. I was supposed to be writing something on the "sacraments" of the church, notably the Lord's Supper. And this particular piece had taken its impetus from a statement attributed to Karl Barth: "There is only one sacrament--the one who has himself risen from the dead." I, for one, felt it was nice of him to have said that, though I wasn't quite sure what he meant. Later on I learned that his son Markus had lectured on the "one sacrament" idea, using it to expound John 6. Well, I had earlier written on the anti-sacramentalism of Jn. 6, so I knew where that chapter was.

Learning that there was a "one sacrament" idea in John 6 was all the help I got from the Barths, but that was enough. I started in, and (once more) one thing led to another until I was clear out in left field. My focus now was not just the Lord's Supper--soon I was grappling with the whole character of religious experience and modern Christendom. My focus was no longer just John 6—soon I was involved with the whole of Fourth Gospel and even the implications of the Beloved Disciple’s being the author of it. And my focus had expanded to more than just one idea out of the Fourth Gospel--soon I had hold of what I am convinced the Beloved Disciple intended as his central theme.

When I realized that this second study could be paired with first study to make a book, all in the world it took to turn the trick was a bit of playing down my original lead-in on the Lord's Supper sacramentalism. As fate (or whoever) would have it, I had written a book on the Beloved Disciple's identity, personal history, and theological thought without once knowing what I was doing. If this is what is meant by writing under the inspiration of the Spirit, I sure wish the Spirit had seen fit to identify himself once in a while and let me know what was going on.

So how this book ever got itself written in the first place--that's one mystery. But the "who done it" of the Fourth Gospel--that mystery is the come-on. So, come on!

Copyright (c) 1987