The Beloved Disciple and the Author of the Fourth Gospel:
John? (and which John?) OR possibly a woman?
a survey of some scholars' conclusions
Nowhere in the Fourth Gospel is the author or the Beloved Disciple explicitly identified by name. There has been considerable speculation and controversy regarding the identity of both the author and the Beloved Disciple ever since authorship by the apostle John was first proposed at the end of the 2nd century. (For further details see Werner Goerg Kummel's Introduction to the New Testament, Nashville: Abingdon, 1975, pages 196-199, or the many excellent commentaries on the Fourth Gospel, including those by Bernard, Barrett, Brown, or Schnackenburg listed below.) The evidence is still being weighed and discussed, and there are wide differences in conclusions among highly qualified scholars.
A number of Bible scholars and theologians are exploring quite seriously or are adopting publicly the conclusion that a woman was the Beloved Disciple and that a woman was the source of the gospel that came to be known as "The Gospel of John," which hereafter in this webpage I will describe as the Fourth Gospel.
THE TRADITIONAL VIEW OF THE IDENTITY OF THE AUTHOR AND BELOVED DISCIPLE
Before considering the possibility of a woman being the author or the Beloved Disciple, it is worthwhile first to consider what early writers said on the identity of the Beloved Disciple and the author of the Fourth Gospel.
|Approximate publication date (A.D.)||
Some of the sources of information contending that "John" was the Beloved Disciple and the author.
|180 to 200||Iraneaeus (130-200 A.D.)|
|170 to 200||Muratorian Fragment|
|200||Latin anti-Marcionite Prologue|
|200-215||Clement of Alexandria (150-215 A.D.), as cited by Eusebius (260-340 A.D.)|
Raymond E. Brown in Volume I of his Anchor Bible commentary on The Gospel According to John (New York: Doubleday, 1966, 1977, Vol 1) writes:
The first question that must be asked, however, concerns the value of the tradition that the Fourth Gospel came from John, a disciple of the the Lord. The Gospel itself speaks of the Beloved Disciple who rested on the Lord's bosom: was Irenaeus simply guessing that this unnamed disciple was John? There is a good indication that he was not, for according to Eusebius Hist. IV 14:3-8 (GCS 91:332), Irenaeus got his information from Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who had heard John. If a chain of tradition from John to Polycarp to Irenaeus can be established, then Irenaeus' testimony to authorship is very valuable indeed. But the correctness of the chain of tradition has been contested on several scores. (page LXXXVIII)
Brown commends -- but does not quote -- C.K. Barrett's first edition presentation of external evidence.
(BibleTexts note: External evidence refers to details that come from sources other than the gospel text itself. Such sources especially include writings from early writers and church leaders who comment on their own understanding/belief of the people, places, and/or times associated with the author and the Beloved Disciple.)
Barrett in his The Gospel According to St. John, Second Edition (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978) writes:
...The reception accorded to the Fourth Gospel in the early part of the second century makes it impossible to believe that it had been published with the full authority of apostolic authorship. If it was written by an apostle, it was not known to have been so written. The narrative recorded in the Muratorian fragment is frankly incredible. It is not hereby proved that the gospel was not written by an apostle; but it is is hard to see why, if it was, it was not published under his name. (page 115)
A partial list of some authoritative works that thoroughly discuss the external evidence of the identify of the author and of the Beloved Disciple are the following:
(Though Bernard's conclusions on authorship are unequivocal, and he unfortunately expects his arguments to provide the definitive conclusion on the subject, the source materials he sites and quotes are especially valuable. Both Bernard and Schnackenburg are distinguished by their exhaustive treatment of external resources. Barrett is also quite thorough.)
THE RECENTLY ASSERTED VIEWS THAT THE AUTHOR AND BELOVED DISCIPLE WAS A WOMAN
I will now summarize several different positions by some writers who concur with each other in concluding that the Beloved Disciple was a woman and that a woman was also the author of the first 20 chapters of the Fourth Gospel, and who differ with each other on what influences shaped the Fourth Gospel and on the identity of the women who they believe was the Beloved Disciple and the author of the Fourth Gospel.
Some 1st century or early 2nd century gnostic writings that were found in 1945 (in Egypt at Nag Hammadi) refer to Mary Magdelene as the most beloved disciple.
Ramon K. Jusino, since early in 1998, has been arguing publicly that Mary Magdelene was both the Beloved Disciple and the voice behind the Fourth Gospel. An outline of his thesis may be browsed at: http://members.tripod.com/~Ramon_K_Jusino/magdalene.html.
Thomas W. Butler argues that Mary of Bethany was both the Beloved Disciple and the voice behind the Fourth Gospel. Dr. Butler's book is titled, Let Her Keep It (Tracy, CA, USA: Quantum Leap Publisher, 1998, ISBN # 09627161-1-1).
Sandra M. Schneider's argument is more open-ended, and explores a variety of possibilities. Dr. Schneider's article, "Because of the Woman's Testimony: Re-examining the Issue of the Authorship in the Fourth Gospel" was published in New Testament Studies (#44, October, 1998, pages 513-535).
Without in any way suggesting or even discussing female authorship of the Fourth Gospel, Gail O'Day's article on "John" in the Women's Bible Commentary, Expanded Edition (Atlanta, GA: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, page 382) draws some important conclusions:
Women play significant roles in the Gospel of John. This significance is evident both in the number of stories in which women appear and in the theological importance of those stories. The opening miracle in Jesus' ministry occurs at a woman's initiative (2:1-11). Women are Jesus' main conversation partners in three stories that reveal Jesus' identity and vocation and the nature of faithful discipleship (4:4-42; 7:53-8:11; 11:1-44). Jesus' passion is watched over by the women from its preparation (12:1-8) through Jesus' death (19:25-27) and resurrection (20:1-18). Men do not have a monopoly on witness and discipleship in John; rather, the Gospel of John narrates a faith world that would not exist without women's participiation in it.
Whether or not the assertion is correct that a woman was the Beloved Disciple and/or the author of the Fourth Gospel, the authentic history of the 1st century Christian communities makes clear that women had very active leadership roles in some churches. To further explore this issue, http://www.bibletexts.com/women.htm.
CONCLUSION REGARDING THE AUTHOR AND THE BELOVED DISCIPLE
If the identity of the author and of the Beloved Disciple are an important issue with you, some of the resources listed above can provide you with a starting-point (or a continuing point). Rather than my giving any appearance of certainty on this very open-ended issue that has been going on since at least the end of the second century, I encourage you to explore some of the above-mentioned resources that expound the more traditional views and those that expound the more recent assertion of a feminie identity. You are welcome to share your research and conclusions with the BibleTexts website.
Regardless of the issue of authorship, there is much that is very special about the Fourth Gospel. Comparing the Fourth Gospel with the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the Fourth Gospel might be described as being more like a painting of Jesus' life; whereas, the synoptic gospels might be described as being more like snap-shot photographs. The synoptic gospels may have some of the dialogue and many of the "sayings" more literally correct and from earlier recorded sources; however, the author/s of the Fourth Gospel with his/her/their artistry, Greek-language symbolism, and spiritual insight seems to present the authentic texture and essence of Jesus' message. This may be due to the writing of the Gospel of John representing a source with more intimate familiarity with the life and ministry and thinking of Christ Jesus. This is my current conclusion.
Copyright 1996-2003 Robert Nguyen Cramer