The Evangelical Universalist Forum

James: The Beloved Disciple of the Fourth Gospel


Explicit allusions to “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (hereafter BD) begin with the Fourth Gospel’s account of the Last Supper in 13:23-26 and include, with variant wording, 18:15-16, 19:25-27, 20:2-10, 21:2, 7, and 21:20-25. An intriguing case can be made that John the Baptist’s anonymous disciple in 1:35-40 later becomes Jesus’ BD. The modern scholarly consensus has abandoned the traditional view that the BD is John the son of Zebedee, but there is no consensus about his true identity. This thread will make the case for Jesus’ brother James as the BD and in the process will demonstrate why John is now precluded from this identity. The thread will do so by addressing these 7 questions.

(1) What is the source of inspiration for the awkward, even shocking designation “the disciple whom Jesus loved and its application to James?”
(2) What is the theological significance of the application of this phrase to James?
(3) Why is the BD’s identity never disclosed in the Fourth Gospel?
(4) Why is there no explicit reference to the BD until the Last Supper?
(5) What hints are there in each allusion to the BD that James is the disciple in question?
(6) How do these hints derive support from early Jewish Christian and Gnostic tradition about James?
(7) How do OT underpinnings of Johannine allusions to the BD support James as the BD?



It is my contention that Jesus’ brother James (= “Jacob” in both Aramaic and Greek) is the best candidate as the anonymous Johannine figure designated “the disciple whom Jesus loved” in and after 13:23-25. The contrast betwesn the absence of allusions to the BD prior to the Last Supper and the frequency of such allusions thereafter reflects the skepticism of Jesus’ brothers for most of Jesus’ public ministry (John 7:5; Mark 3:19-20; 6:3). The BD must be distinguished from the author or editor (a) because no one is likely to claim so lofty a title for himself and (b) because a literal interpretation of this title awkwardly implies a contradiction between Jesus’ exclusive love for the BD and His professed love for all His disciples (13:31, 34; 15:9, 12; cp. 11:5).

The explanation of this tension is its adaptation of the descriptive applied to the OT Patriarch Jacob in Ps 47:4-5:
“He chose our inheritance for us, THE PRIDE OF JACOB WHOM HE LOVED. God HAS ASCENDED amid shouts of joy, THE LORD amid the sounding of trumpets (Psalm 47:4-5).”

The context of the first BD reference is the arrival of “the hour” (13:1) for Jesus’ ascent through death and resurrection (12:32: 20:17; et al). The theme of ascent in Psalm 47:4-5 is echoed in the allusion to Jesus’ resurrection that the Evangelist detects in the citation of Psalm 47:9 in John 13:18, which is applied to Judas::

“My bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me. And you, O Lord, be gracious to me AND RAISE ME UP, that I may repay them Psalm 41:9-10).”

In John 13:18 Jesus applies Psalm 41:9 to Himself and also by implication the phrase “raise me up” which is thus taken as another reference to His resurrection… Indeed, 2 nearby psalms are mined for allusions to 2 of Jesus’ followers, James (Jacob) and Judas, precisely to reinforce the arrival of “the hour” for Jesus’ glorification. The early church continues to apply Psalm 41:10 and 47:5 to Jesus’ resurrection (e. g. Pseudo-Ignatius, Trallians 10:5; Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms 41:10; 47:5).

The 2 Gnostic Apocalypses of James reflect this early Jewish Christian identification of James as the BD… In 2 Apoc Jas 59:8-9 James says: “I am the Beloved. I am the just one” (cp. 56.14-16; 57.4-5) and the anonymity of James in the Fourth Gospel is mirrored by James’s statement, “I am the brother in secret (2 Apoc. Jas. 48.22-23).”

The nickname “the disciple whom Jesus loved” indicates a uniquely lofty status for James (Jacob), but another phrase applied to “James the Just” in the late first century Gnostic Gospel of Thomas 12, taken literally, implies an even loftier status:

"The disciples said to Jesus: “We know that you will depart from us. Who shall be great over us?” Jesus replied to them: “Wherever you have gone , you will turn to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth have come into being.”

The disciples’ question here about the greatest among them is reminiscent of the Lucan dispute at the Last Supper about the greatest disciple in the wake of Jesus imminent departure (Luke 22:24). So Gospel of Thomas 12 is set in the context of the end of Jesus’ public ministry and may well have originated in Last Supper tradition. The exalted phrase “for whose sake heaven and earth have come into being” is often applied to Israel in early rabbinic texts (BT Ta’anith 24b; Berakhoth 17b; 61b; Hullin 86a). Similarly, the phrase “the heritage of Jacob whom I loved” in Ps 47:4 presupposes the change of Jacob’s name to Israel and his consequent status as a father of Israel. So the Johannine title, “the disciple whom Jesus’ loved,” is an extension of the Johannine theme of Jesus’ disciples as True Israel.

In contemporary Jewish typology, Jacob is a symbol of the new age. In 4 Ezra 6:9 the story of Jacob gripping Esau’s heal at their birth is a type in which Esau’s heel symbolizes the end of the old age and Jacob’s hand symbolizes the dawning of the age to come:

“Jacob’s hand held the heel of Esau from the beginning. For Esau is the end of this age and Jacob is the beginning of the age that follows.”

In John 13:3, 18 hand/ heel imagery is applied to the arrival of Jesus’ “hour,” the time of His “ascent” and glorification. The allusion to Judas’s heel and Jesus’ hands may well serve as an echo of the Jacob/ Esau birth story implied by the presence of the new Jacob (James) in John 13:23-25.

Besides James, none of Jesus’ other followers are assigned a positive as opposed to a neutral (e. g. Peter) or negative (Judas) role in early Last Supper traditions. A positive role for James at the Last Supper derives further support from Jerome’s quotation of the Gospel according to the Hebrews (Gos. Heb.):

“For James had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour in which he had drunk the cup of the Lord until he should see him risen from among them that sleep (Quoted in Jerome, In viris inlustribus 2).”

The proximity of the Fourth Gospel’s traditions with Gos. Heb. is implied by the fact that the story of the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53-8:1) was originally absent from this Gospel, but was apparently borrowed from Gos. Heb (so Papias in Eus. HE 3.29.17; also Didymus the Blind’s Commentary on Psalms).

Thus, the Last Supper is not restricted to the 12. In Mark the 2 unnamed disciples sent to prepare the Passover meal (14:13-16) are distinguished from the 12 who later come to eat it (14:17). In Mark the anonymous “young man” who follows the arrested Jesus is distinguished from “all” the disciples who flee in Gethsemane (14:50-52). This “young man” is probably present at the Last Supper because the guests there moved as a group to the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane (14:25, 32).

In 14:51-52 The curious allusion to this young man’s loss of his linen garment is compatible with his identity as James because James is the only Christian from this era distinguished by his linen attire (see Hegesippus in Eus. HE 2.23.6). Indeed, this “young man” is expressly identified as James in the Jewish Christian source used by Epiphanius (Panarion 78:13). The anonymity of both the BD and this “young man” may well be related. James’s resolve to follow and possibly help the arrested Jesus is attested by James’s comments in in 1 Apoc Jas 25.14-15 ("“Rabbi, you have said they will seize me. But I, what can I do (1 Apoc. Jas. 25:10-12)?” The underlying Jewish Christian tradition of the seizure of James’s linen cloak and his resulting naked flight is also attested in this Gnostic tradition: “But you too will they seize, but leave Jerusalem 1 Apoc. Jas 25:14-15).” In 2 Apoc Jas 46:14-16 James describes himself as “[he who] stripped [himself and] went about naked.”

(5) THE FULFILLMENT OF JOHN 1:51 in 13:24:-25:
In John 13:23-25 the odd note that the BD “was reclining against Him” makes sense as a fulfilment of the Bethel rock typology in 1:51 (cf. Gen 28:10-18), which portrays angelic ascent and descent on “the Son of Man,” Jesus. The rock on which Jacob reclines in Gen 28:11 is typologically identified as the Logos in Philo, De somniis 1:127-128 and as Jesus in Justin Dial. 86:2-3. From this perspective James (Jacob) reclines on Jesus the Bethel rock in John 13:23-25. A role for Jacob in 1:51 is implied by the immediately preceding reference to Nathaniel as a representative of True Israel “without guile (1:47; cp. Gen 27:35-36).” It is at Bethel that “Israel” is affirmed as Jacob’s new name (Gen 35:7-9; cp. 32:29). The connection between 1:51 and the epithets applied to James in both John 13:23-25 and Gospel of Thomas 12 support the implicit early Jewish Christian identification of James as the New Jacob of True Israel.

At Bethel Jacob declares, “The stone that I have set up as a memorial stone shall be God’s house (Gen 28:22).” This stone is originally a symbol of the Bethel sanctuary and later at Qumran a symbol for the promise of an eschatological Temple (11 QT 29:3-10). The identification of Jesus as the Bethel rock in John 1:51 helps explain why this reference is sandwiched between the reference to the “tabernacling” Logos in 1:14 and Jesus’ body as the restored Temple in John 2:19-22. The Johannine cleansing of the Temple scene has no doubt been relocated to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry to promote this symbolism.

The extensive conflation of OT rock/stone testimonia in the NT and the early church is another key to the identification of James as the BD in John 13:23-25. Examples of this conflation include Rom 9:32-33; (cf. Isa 8:14; 28:16); 1 Peter 2:4-6 (cf. Ps 118:22; Isa 28:16; 8:14); Epistle of Barnabas 6:2-4 (cf. Isa 28:16; 50:7; Ps 118:22); and the various OT rock testimonia in Justin Dial 34:2: 36:1; 70:1; 76:1; 86:2-3; 90:5; 100:4; 113:6; 114:2 , 4; 126:1.

2 Johannine OT rock/stone testimonia prepare the way for the stone testimonium in 13:23:

(a) The setting of the first is the Feast of Tabernacles, a festival that recalls God’s provisions for the Israelites in the wilderness, including the stream of water from the Mosaic rock (Exod 18 and Num 20)… The scholarly consensus recognizes this Mosaic rock tradition behind Jesus’ saying in John 7:37-39:

“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let and let the one who believes in me drink. As the Scripture says, “Out of His (Jesus’) belly (Greek: koilia”) will flow springs of living water (the Holy Spirit])”

Exod 17:6 supplies the key underlying phrase that inspires Jesus’ saying: “And water will come out of it (the rock)?”

In John 4:5-10 Jesus’ claim to be the source of “living water” reacts to Jacob’s removal of the rock covering of the well in Gen. 29:1-10 to water his future wife Rachel’s flocks. By implication Jesus sits on (“epi”–not beside) the well’s rock cover and thus typologically supplants Jacob’s role in providing a woman water. In this way, John 4:5-10 bridges a gap between the Jacob rock typology in 1:51 (and hence 13:23-25) and the Christ rock typology in 7:38.

(b) Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem precedes the Last Supper report. The crowd’s acclamation derives from Psalm 118:24-25, where it immediately follows the Temple cornerstone reference, which is applied to Jesus in Mark 12:10 pars., Romans 9:32-33, and 1 Peter 2:7.


Virtually every well-known commentator identify the specially-loved disciple as the apostle John. John didn’t identify himself as that disciple out of humility. I cannot see any clear evidence from what you have written, that it was James. I don’t put any stock into Gnostic opinions. So, unless such clear evidence is offered, I will continue to believe it was John.



I have presented this material to an academic symposium and no scholar challenged my idientification of James as the BD. Contrary to your claim, the scholarly consensus rejects John the apostle as the BD and that is why I launched my search for the true identity. the most famous commentary on John is Raymond Brown’s massive 2-volume work. But guess what? In a later book on the Fourth Gospel he renounces his error for the reasons I will outline in this thread. The Gnostic evidence is important because of their access to first-century Jewish Christian orthodox traditions and because they preserve authentic saying s of Jesus. But c’mon-do you really believe the apostle John would be arrogant enough to refer to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved?” I have established the origin of this sobriquet and you have no alternative evidence for its origin.


Here is the significant portion taken from some of the commentaries on John 13:23

One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’ side (ESV)

“Whom Jesus loved.” This was doubtless John himself. The evangelists are not accustomed to mention their own names when any mark of favour or any good deed is recorded. They did not seek publicity or notoriety.

The peculiar love with which Christ loved John plainly testifies that, if we love some more than others, this is not always inconsistent with brotherly love

The person here mentioned was John, the writer of this history, who, being more tenderly loved by Christ than the rest, had always that place at table which was nearest to his Lord.

“there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved”— Thus modestly does our Evangelist denote himself, as reclining next to Jesus at the table.

The person who sat next to our Saviour, with his back next our Saviour’s bosom, was John, often in Scripture dignified with the title of the beloved disciple, and him whom Jesus loved,

At the table John was on the right of Jesus lying obliquely so that his head lay on the bosom of Jesus.

Not one of the commentaries I have consulted suggest that the “disciple whom Jesus loved” was anyone else.


Non of those commentators are modern NT scholars and therefore are irrelevant to the modern scholarly consensus. I don’t think you have considered my arguments carefully and you have provided no evidence from the Fourth Gospel for your defense of the traditional view. But I have only just begun to mount my case, which was well received by a scholarly session where presented my evidence in detail.