Anonymous figures have a way of piquing our curiosity and compelling us to learn more. Think of Watergate’s Deep Throat or the notorious Unabomber. Now that we know that Deep Throat was really FBI agent Mark Felt and that the Unabomber was a schizophrenic mathematician named Ted Kaczynski, those figures somehow cease to be as interesting as they once were.
The same goes for anonymous figures in the Bible. Perhaps the most well known in the New Testament is the so-called beloved disciple. Apart from Jesus, this character—whose identity is never revealed—should be regarded as one of the most intriguing figures in the Gospel of John. However, since many assume they already know this figure’s identity, he often fails to inspire the sense of mystery that the story intends to evoke.
The most common identification of this character is drawn from an early tradition, which holds that the beloved disciple was an actual individual known as John, the son of Zebedee, a disciple of Jesus. This theory also identifies the son of Zebedee as the author of the Gospel of John. This idea remains an important view among contemporary Christians, though there is little evidence to support it. Other scholars have variously identified the beloved disciple as Lazarus (
The shadowy figure known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” appears in five scenes in the Gospel of John (
Perhaps a historical individual actually stood behind the figure of the beloved disciple. Nevertheless, the beloved disciple is anonymous in the text and must remain so to fulfill the role given him in the story. The point John’s Gospel makes is that any reader who wishes to follow Jesus can become a beloved disciple by following his lead. From the pages of the story the beloved disciple beckons the reader: “Follow Jesus as I have followed him, and you too can become a disciple whom Jesus loves.”
- Bennema, Cornelis. Encountering Jesus: Character Studies in the Gospel of John. Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009, especially chap 21.
- Hylen, Susan E. Imperfect Believers: Ambiguous Characters in the Gospel of John. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2009, especially chapter 6.
- Culpepper, R. Alan. John the Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend. Studies on Personalities of the New Testament. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994. Repr., Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000.