THE BELOVED DISCIPLE WHOM NEVER DIED

The Beloved Disciple

It is strange that you call us stupid when we uphold customs that rest on the authority of so great an Apostle, who was considered worthy to lean on our Lord’s breast.
Bishop Colman, 664 AD

At the synod of Whitby, Bede tells us, the Celtic Church defended her errant customs, so contrary to the practices of the Universal Church, on the grounds that they must be beyond criticism since they originated from the disciple whom Jesus loved. But who was that man?

Only one of the four canonical gospels mentions a disciple especially loved by Jesus, the Gospel of John. The other three, Matthew, Mark and Luke, are known as the Synoptic Gospels because they clearly have much material in common. Indeed it is generally accepted in biblical scholarship that Mark was a source text for Matthew and Luke, and that they both drew on another document now lost, known as Q. But the fourth gospel is a separate voice. Though generally dated to the early first century, it claims to have been written, at least in part, by an actual eyewitness to the events described, the Beloved Disciple himself.

Even in John’s gospel, it is not until his story is reaching its climax, on the evening before the crucifixion, that there is any mention of a disciple whom Jesus loved. But from then on this individual is not merely a witness to the events described, he is a prominent player. First, at the last meal Christ ate with his followers it was he who leaned on the Lord’s breast and asked the name of the one who would betray him. He was present at the crucifixion, when the other disciples had fled, and Christ spoke to him from the cross, giving his own mother into that disciple’s care. Then he was one of the first witnesses to the resurrection, going to the tomb with Simon Peter when Mary Magdalene reported it was empty. And at the end of this gospel, when the risen Lord has predicted Peter’s fate, his eventual martyrdom, Peter asks what would happen to this disciple, and receives this reply: “If it should be my will that he wait until I come, what is it to you? Follow me.” Finally comes the statement that “It is this same disciple who attests what has here been written. It is in fact he who wrote it, and we know that his testimony is true.”[1]

Traditionally it was held that the Beloved Disciple was the Apostle John, son of Zebedee and brother of James, one of the Galilean fishermen who left their nets to follow Christ. It is easy to see how this misidentification came about. If the author of the fourth gospel was named John, and he was the Beloved Disciple and therefore present at the Last Supper at which, traditionally, only the Twelve and Christ himself were present, then there is only one candidate: John, son of Zebedee is the only John among the Twelve. In time the Apostle John was given a life story which had him exiled for his faith on the island of Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation, and after his release living in Ephesus with the Virgin Mary, where he wrote his gospel and where, eventually, they both died and were buried. Few biblical scholars now accept this story, and and as Robert Eisler pointed out in 1938, there is surviving textual evidence to prove that the early Church did not accept it either.

In The Enigma of the Fourth Gospel Eisler set out to answer the question most contemporary scholars thought unanswerable, namely, who was the author of the gospel attributed to John, and in doing so incidentally identified that other mysterious character, the Beloved Disciple. The Gospel, he concluded, was indeed written by a man named John, but not one of fiery tempered sons of Zebedee whom Christ nicknamed Sons of Thunder. The two brothers were actually executed by Herod Agrippa in 42 AD – their martyrdom predicted in Christ’s statement to them in Mark 10.39 “The cup that I drink you shall drink, and the baptism I am baptized with shall be your baptism”. Their feast day was originally celebrated on December 27th, the anniversary of their joint martyrdom, and Eisler demonstrates how later textual emendations disguised the facts in order to maintain the fiction that the fourth gospel was written by one of the Twelve. That the early Church knew the Apostle and the Evangelist were different Johns is demonstrated by an ancient gospel preface. It was a commonplace of the librarianship of the ancient world to affix such prefaces to texts, making the connection between different authors and distinguishing like named individuals from each other, and without these prefaces, Eisler reminds us, we would know very little indeed about the authors of the ancient world. An ancient Syrian codex prefaced the fourth gospel with this statement :”The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, the preaching of John the Younger”.[2] If there was a John the Younger, then there was an older John from whom he needed to be distinguished

We know that there was a Church father called John of Ephesus, who was the teacher of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. Irenaeus, who claims to have heard Polycarp preaching when he was just a lad, describes this John as an eye-witness to the Word of Life and as one who had seen the Lord.[3] He does not, however, claim he was one of the Twelve, nor identify him with John son of Zebedee. And a contemporary of Irenaeus provides us with more detailed biographical information which further distinguishes the two Johns. Copied into Eusebius’ History of the Church is a letter from Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, addressed to Victor, bishop of Rome, thirteenth in Eusebius’ list, who held office from 189 to 201 AD. It is written in defence of the Asian dating of Easter, at variance with that of Rome and, Eusebius claims, with all the rest of the Church. Polycrates, in contrast, claims the agreement of Christians from all parts of world, and points out that he has himself been sixty five years in the service of God, and that he comes from a family which produced seven bishops before himself, all of whom observed this custom, and that having carefully examined all of Holy Scripture, he is not scared of Victor’s threats: “Better people than I have said: ‘We must obey God rather than men.’” Polycrates trump card, however, is surely the list of “great luminaries” who lived, died and are now “asleep in Asia”, who all followed the Easter dating still preserved by their spiritual descendants. Among them he lists “Philip of the Twelve” and his daughters, and “John, who lay on the Lord’s breast, had been a priest who had worn the golden frontlet.”[4]

As Eisler points out, Polycrates is doubtless using everything he can to strengthen his case, yet he specifically does not say John of Ephesus was one of the Twelve, he only says that of Philip. But he does say that John had been a priest, a priest, that is, who had worn the golden frontlet. The golden frontlet was part of the regalia of a Jewish high priest. Polycrates is saying that John of Ephesus had officiated as high priest at the temple in Jerusalem. Jewish high priests were drawn from a closed, aristocratic caste. As John son of Zebedee was a Galilean fisherman – a fact attested by all the gospels – Polycrates’ statement should have precluded any possible confusion between the two men. And it should do more. We know from Josephus that there were only twenty eight high priests from the time of Herod the Great to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by the Romans under Titus in 70 AD. So it should be possible to pinpoint this man.

Eisler believes he has found him. Prominent among the high priests recorded by Josephus is an individual variously named Annas, Ananus, or Ananias (Hanan, Hananiah). He was placed in office around 7 AD by Quirinius, the Roman proconsul of Syria, and his influence continued long after his deposition by Valerius Gratus, the procurator of Judea who preceded Pontius Pilate. Five of his sons succeeded him in office, as well as his son-in-law Caiaphas, and he was still referred to as the high priest long after he had ceased to officiate. The high priest who presided over Jesus’ trial was Caiaphas, and all four gospels tell us that Jesus was taken to the house of the high priest after his arrest, but the Gospel of John tells us he was taken first to the house of ‘Annas the high priest.’ and it was Annas who sent him on to Caiaphas.

In Acts 4.6, listed among the Jewish rulers, elders and doctors of the law are “Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander and as many as were of the kindred of the high priest in Jerusalem.” Some translations of the text have Jonathan (Jo-nathan) in place of John (Jo-hanan). This is believed to be a learned correction imposed by a scribe who knew from Josephus that Ananias had a son named Jonathan, high priest in the year 36-37 AD. But, says Eisler, there is no need for this correction since Ananias also had a son named John.

There is a John son of Ananias listed among the Jewish commanders in Josephus’ The Jewish War, responsible for Gophna and Acrabetta. As the Jewish commanders were almost exclusively drawn from the priestly aristocracy, the likelihood is that this John was too. At this first appearance Josephus names him ‘the John of Annas’, as if he needed no further introduction. Clearly he doesn’t, if he is the son of the prominent high priest Josephus has already brought into the story. If he were the son of an otherwise unknown Annas, Eisler suggests, Josephus would have introduced him as ‘a certain Johanan b. Hananiah’. So the commander of Gophna and Acrabetta is the John of the high priest’s kin named in Acts 4.6.

There is no John son of Ananias among the twenty eight high priests Josephus names. But there is a Theophilus, son of Ananias, who succeeded his brother Jonathan in office, number fifteen in Josephus’ list, officiating from 37 to 41 AD. No Jewish high priest could have held office under that name, for ritual purposes he would have to have had a Jewish name, and Theophilus, says Eisler, is a gentile translation of the Jewish Johanan.

John of Ephesus had worn the golden frontlet and Acts 19.14 says there were sons of a Jewish high priest at Ephesus, exorcising evil spirits in name of Jesus. The agreement among the surviving texts leaves little room for doubt, the author of the fourth gospel was John son of Ananias. Irenaeus, who claimed to have heard the teaching of this John’s pupil, believed that the famous Church father had been in direct contact with Christ himself, and his contemporary Bishop Polycrates of Ephesus believed he was identical with the Beloved Disciple. So also did the anonymous writer of a sixth century preface which Eisler transcribes:

John, the most holy evangelist was the youngest among all the apostles, Him the Lord held (in his arms) when the apostles discussed who among them was the greatest and when He said: He who is not converted as this boy, will not enter the kingdom of Heaven. It is he who reclined against the Lord’s breast. It is he whom Jesus loved more than the others and to whom he gave his mother Mary, and whom he gave as son to Mary.[5]

There is clearly a confusion of personnel here. There was a child held up as an example to the Apostles contending for preference. But Christ on the cross cannot have given his mother into the care of a child. If John of Ephesus was a boy when he had ‘seen the Lord’, then he could have lived into the following century to write a gospel in his old age. It is not likely the Beloved Disciple would have lived so long, and indeed he was clearly dead when the fourth gospel was written, as that text carefully explains that although Jesus had said this disciple was to wait ‘until I come’ that is not at all the same as his saying this man would not die. It seems many had believed the Beloved Disciple could not die before the second coming of Christ, and the evangelist found it necessary to persuade them not to lose faith because this disciple had in fact now died. Immediately after this he concludes with his claim that ‘this same disciple’ ‘attests what is here written’, and ‘in fact he wrote it’, and ‘we know that his testimony is true’. This is not a claim that the Beloved Disciple wrote the gospel, but that the writer of the gospel had transcribed his written testimony, a testimony which he, John of Ephesus, knew to be true.

So who was the Beloved Disciple? In fact, says Eisler, there is no mystery here. Only one gospel mentions this character and that gospel names him quite plainly. In John 11.3 Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus (Eleazar) of Bethany, send to Christ to inform him that their brother is gravely ill. The message does not name their brother, it terms him simply ‘he whom thou lovest’. As Eisler remarks, “The two sisters have no doubt that the Master will understand this urgent message without any further explanation, in other words, they presuppose that there is but one man ‘whom Jesus loved’ – Lazarus of Bethany."[6]

This identification makes sense of John’s gospel, especially its conclusion. Why was the Beloved Disciple, in particular, not expected to die before the second coming? Because Lazarus had died already, and Jesus had already raised him from the dead. How did John know that the testimony of the Beloved Disciple was true? Because he could corroborate parts of it himself. The Beloved Disciple, scholars accept, is the same individual referred to in John as ‘another disciple’. When Christ was arrested and led to the high priest’s house, Peter and this other disciple followed. Peter was at first stopped at the door, and only allowed into the courtyard at the instigation of this other disciple, on whom no such bar was imposed because he was ‘known to the high priest’. The Beloved Disciple and the writer of the gospel were members of the same small, aristocratic caste. The ‘courtyard of the high priest’ where Peter stood warming himself that night, and where he uttered his famous denial “I do not know the man”, was in the house of Ananias, John’s childhood home.

John knew that Lazarus’ witness was true, because he was there. The boy whom Jesus had held up as an example to his adult followers, would have witnessed, in his own father’s house, the abuse of his Messiah at the hands of the guards. And on the testimony of many ancient authors,[7] he was also present at the arrest. Eisler suggests he must have followed the guards to Gethsemane, slipping from his bed unnoticed by parents and servants, covered only by a linen sheet, which he left in the hands of the guards when they tried to catch him, and escaped naked. This incident, recorded in Mark’s gospel, was remembered in the primitive Church because the experience of this brave little aristocrat fitted so well with the prophecy of Amos, “he that is courageous among the mighty shall flee away naked in that day, saith the Lord”.[8]

So, Eisler concludes, so far from the fourth evangelist being unknown and unknowable, we know more of him than of all the other three put together, and St. Peter to boot. Born into the aristocracy, the son of the high priest Ananias ben Sethi, he was just a child when the youths of the temple hailed Jesus as the promised Messiah,[9] and it would have been with these older “buds of the priesthood”, his brothers and cousins, that he was able to mix with the disciples, to see and even to touch the living Christ. In 37 AD, many years after the crucifixion, he became high priest like his father before him, but in 41 AD was deposed by Herod Agrippa, the same who executed the two sons of Zebedee. His brother Jonathan, who preceded him in office, was assassinated, Josephus accuses, at the instigation of Felix, governor of Judea.

There were Messianic revolutionaries among the priestly aristocracy, and though the older members of that caste fought long and hard to defeat the movement, when Jewish resentment against Rome finally exploded in 66 AD, it was a young aristocrat, Eleazar, son of Ananias the high priest,[10] who lit the fuse. Josephus describes him as a very bold youth who was governor of the temple, who used his position to halt the sacrifice for Caesar, which the Romans had allowed the Jews to substitute – as proof of loyalty and submission – for participation in the Imperial cult which their religion forbade. And it was the aristocracy who ultimately asserted control over the revolt, which otherwise would surely have destroyed them. Most of the commanders were members of that caste. The historian Josephus, descendant of the Maccabean kings, was given Galilee, John was sent to rule Gophna and Acrabetta in northern Judaea. When the revolt was crushed a few years later, both were able to surrender on very favourable terms. While so many of his countrymen were slaughtered or enslaved, the quisling Josephus found service with the new imperial family, the first draft of his famous history finished in time for the Emperor’s Triumph in 71 AD. John, meanwhile, retired to Ephesus, where in the bitterness of defeat he was converted to the Pauline, quietist version of Christianity – or so Eisler holds. The Pauline camp does not appear to have accepted him. Acts 19.14 tells a story of the sons of Jewish high priests attempting to banish demons in the name of Jesus with whom, it is implied, they had no connection. The demons acknowledged Jesus, and Paul, but not the exorcists themselves, who were driven from the house stripped and battered.

Yet we know John of Ephesus was for years a respected figure in the early Church. The most famous tale told of him is how, in old age, when asked to teach he would say only “little children, love one another”. When asked why he had nothing else to say he replied, because this was what Christ taught, and it was enough, if followed.

John of Ephesus was never exiled on Patmos, and never wrote the Apocalypse. (Eisler suggests the prophecy was written down by Cerinthus, a heretic who claimed to be channelling, to use the modern parlance, the spirit of the martyred John son of Zebedee.) He had already reached a great old age when prevailed upon to write his gospel. What moved him to do so was the arrival of a keen young man who offered to act as his secretary, and who presented John with documents purportedly written by the Beloved Disciple himself. John knew at once that these were the genuine article, but the secretary, Eisler suggests, was not at all what he seemed. This was the heretic Marcion, whose understanding of the God of Israel was not at all that of John of Ephesus, who had served in his temple, or indeed of Robert Eisler. The industrious secretary was able to put his own slant on the document, so that a first draft Gospel of John, replete with Marcionite errors, had already been released before the purported author was aware of what had happened. It had already been rejected as heretical by many orthodox churches, “although it came under such an illustrious author’s name”,[11] before old John could produce and promulgate a revised and corrected text.

The early Church knew perfectly well who was responsible for the fourth gospel, and so also did Roman authorities who had spared rebel commander after the Jewish defeat of 70 AD. Revolutionary Messianism was not dead, and Christianity, despite the quietism of Paul, had never ceased to be a suspect cult in the eyes of Imperial Rome. John’s gospel sealed his doom. Somewhere between 115 and 117 AD the saintly old man was condemned to drink hemlock and ‘fall asleep in Asia’. Some apparently thought that he was literally asleep, and a belief, still current in Augustine’s time, held that he went into his tomb alive and his breath could still be observed by the movement of dust on floor above, which dust was collected by pilgrims as a holy relic.

But what of Lazarus? The fate of the disciple whom Christ loved, into whose care he gave his own mother, is unknown. It was not the Beloved Disciple who retired to Ephesus. The last we see of him is in John’s gospel, when Christ instructed him to ‘wait until I come’. Where he was to wait, what he was waiting for, we never learn. Had John’s gospel been rejected from the canon, as it so nearly was, the subject of Christ’s greatest miracle might easily have been dismissed as a Gnostic myth, since the synoptics have nothing at all to say about him. But that, apparently, wasn’t always the case.

In 1958 Professor Morton Smith discovered, at the Mar Saba monastery, southeast of Jerusalem, a letter, hand-written in the eighteenth century but purportedly a copy of one sent by the second century Church father Clement of Alexandria to one Theodore. Theodore had evidently questioned Clement on the subject of a secret gospel which Carpocratian heretics were making use of. Clement, in his reply, admits the existence of a Secret Gospel of Mark in the possession of the Alexandrian Church, of which the Carpocratian document is a distorted version. Mark’s first gospel, he explains, was intended for “those who were being instructed”, but he had also composed “a more spiritual Gospel for the use of those who were being perfected” Clement quotes a passage from this gospel, a resurrection story beginning “And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there.”[12] Neither the brother nor the sister are named, but the rich young man from of Bethany, raised from the dead by Christ who then “looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him” is quite clearly the Lazarus of John’s gospel, the Beloved Disciple. Morton Smith and other scholars have suggested that Lazarus is also the rich young man who in Mark 10.17 asked Jesus how to attain salvation and was told he must give away all he possessed. That gospel says that Jesus looked on him and loved him, and the Bethany youth is clearly known to Christ before the resurrection incident. Other scholars reject Secret Mark and all its implications. The document photographed by Morton Smith has never been made publicly available and is, in any case, only a copy of a text purportedly written by Clement.

Without Secret Mark the only evidence for the existence of Lazarus, the disciple Jesus loved, is John’s gospel. Could he be just a Gnostic myth? The whole of John’s gospel hinges on his reality, for as John vouches for the truth of the Beloved Disciple’s testimony, so the Beloved Disciple vouches for his gospel, and if he never existed, the the gospel is completely discredited. And John’s story is replete with circumstantial detail which would have made it checkable at the time.

John names Lazarus. He names his two sisters. He names the small town where the rich young man lived. John himself is one of the few New Testament characters recorded in non-biblical texts. He is recorded because he was a member of the Jewish aristocracy. The wealthy and well-connected are always more visible, to historians, and to contemporaries. Lazarus, John tells us, was a member of his own caste, being “known to the high priest’. Then he would have been known to a great many others besides, had he existed.

A rich young nobleman raised from the dead would hardly have escaped public attention. John’s gospel tells us people flocked to Bethany not only to see Christ but to see the resurrected Lazarus, and that the miracle caused so great an increase in Christ’s following that the chief priests plotting to kill him resolved to do away with Lazarus as well. If there had been no such miracle, no wealthy, well placed disciple especially loved by Jesus, then even a hundred years after the event the rest of the Church would surely know John’s gospel was completely false. And if it were true? It would make a lot more sense of what we do know of the early Church. The Jewish Messiah was expected to lead his people to triumph over their enemies. Jesus Christ was publicly tortured and executed by the Romans, and logically that should have been the end of his messianic claims. Yet shortly after the crucifixion the Jesus movement revived, his terrified, scattered following suddenly convinced of his resurrection. St. Paul was converted from persecutor to evangelist on the strength of that early conviction. But how did such an improbable belief ever did get off ground? Resurrection visions? Would that not more likely be thought the ghost of a dead man? The empty tomb? But someone could have removed the body, as Mary first thought. But what if the circle around Christ had already witnessed the resurrection of a dead man? The presence of Lazarus in their midst would surely dispose them to believe that Christ also had risen from the dead.

The balance of evidence suggests John is telling the truth. There really was a Lazarus of Bethany, a rich young man believed to have been raised from the dead by Christ, the disciple whom he loved and in whose care he placed his own mother. But this individual must have been well known to the early church, yet he makes no appearance in the Synoptic gospels in their current form, nor in Acts. There has clearly been a cover-up. The conclusion of John’s gospel may hint at an explanation. Miles Fowler plausibly suggests Lazarus might have been removed from Mark’s gospel because his second death appeared to invalidate faith in the resurrection.[13] But of course there could be more to it.

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