Twenty years ago the late Michael Goulder wrote an article in which he argued that Paul was the Fourth Gospel’s Beloved Disciple (“An Old Friend Incognito,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 1992, Vol. 45, pp. 487-513). It is no secret that the Fourth Gospel’s Jesus is very different from the Synoptic one. Goulder proposed that its Beloved Disciple too is a very different version of a disciple we all know and love: Paul.
According to Goulder’s hypothesis:
John was writing round the turn of the century, and had not known Paul personally. He did know at least some of the Pauline letters which we have; and he inferred from them, reasonably but erroneously, that Paul had been one of the Twelve Apostles. He also inferred from them that Paul had been present at the Last Supper, the Passion and the Resurrection. He found reason for thinking that Paul had been loved by Jesus; but his reconstruction was met with so much incredulity that he felt obliged to keep his hero incognito. (pp. 495-96).
Thus, according to Goulder, it was a misunderstanding of certain Pauline passages that led the author of the Fourth Gospel to form a conception of Paul quite different from the one in the Acts of the Apostles.
- The scholar suggested that the very expression “the disciple that Jesus loved” may owe its origin to a mistaken understanding of Gal. 2:20: “But the life that I now live in the flesh, I live in faith in the Son of God, who loved me . . .”
- And he noted how easily one could have wrongly inferred from the words of 1 Corinthians 9:1 (“Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”) that Paul, like the other apostles, had met and received his call to apostleship from Jesus during the time of the Lord’s public ministry.
One particularly interesting example brought forward by Goulder was 1 Corinthians 11:23 ff. (“For I received from the Lord, what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, in the night in which he was betrayed, took bread etc.”). Goulder showed that the Fourth Gospel’s peculiar Eucharistic scenario could have plausibly arisen from a misidentification of the two occasions referred to by the 1 Corinthians passage, to wit:
“I received from the Lord” when I reclined on his breast at the Last Supper . . . “that the Lord Jesus, in the night in which he was betrayed” after the Feeding of the Five Thousand, “took bread etc.”
In the Fourth Gospel the Beloved Disciple was present at the Last Supper, but there is no indication given that he was present at the earlier event. And in that gospel it is implied that it was at that earlier event—the Feeding in Jn. 6—that Jesus instructed his followers to observe a eucharistic eating and drinking. His eucharistic discourse is given on that occasion and, correspondingly, there is no eucharist celebrated at the Johannine Last Supper. Thus the Beloved Disciple would have learned from Jesus at the Last Supper what had transpired after the earlier event, the Feeding of the Multitude.
In this scenario, then, the betrayal by Judas was initiated on the earlier occasion, somewhat like the initial betrayal agreement in 14:10 of Mark’s Gospel. Which is why it was after the Johannine Feeding that Jesus spoke of the betrayal: “Did I not choose you twelve? Yet is not one of you a devil? He was referring to Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot; it was he who would betray him, one of the twelve” (Jn. 6: 70-71).
As Goulder sees it—and I agree—this kind of reading of 1 Corinthians 11:23 would explain quite well why the Fourth Gospel has the peculiar eucharistic scenario it does. (Again, I emphasize that Goulder is not arguing that the above explanations are the correct interpretations of the Pauline passages in question. What he is saying is that whoever wrote the Fourth Gospel could have composed it under the sway of such reasonable misunderstandings. And “the striking fact is that it is possible to find a basis for all the BD (Beloved Disciple) stories in the Pauline epistles, if that is what one is looking for.” (“An Old Friend Incognito”, p. 495).
Another example: John 21:23 mentions a rumor among the brethren that the Beloved Disciple would not die, but would remain until Jesus comes. It claims that the rumor was based upon a misunderstanding of something Jesus said. Now there are Pauline passages that could plausibly give rise to such a rumor. Goulder cites Philippians 1:25:
And convinced of this I know that I shall remain and continue with you all . . .
To which I would add 1 Thessalonians 4:15 where Paul says,
We tell you this, on the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who remain until the coming of the Lord, will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep.
The “would not die” and “remain” of Jn. 21:23 can be seen as corresponding to the “who are alive” and “who remain” of 1 Thess. 4:15. The words of Jesus, “What if I want him to remain until I come” in Jn. 21:23 could have been taken to correspond to the “word of the Lord” in 1 Thess. 4:15. It is easy to see how, based on these passages, a belief that Paul would not die could arise.
In John 20:4 the Beloved Disciple outruns Peter to the empty tomb. Goulder suggests that this passage may be inspired by Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:26, “So that is why I run as I do, not aimlessly.” And taking this outrunning of Peter a step further, Goulder (and many other scholars too) detect an element of competition between the Beloved Disciple and Peter. As Goulder describes it:
At every step we seem to feel that he (the Beloved Disciple) is doing better than Peter—more intimate with the Lord, better connected (with the high priest), the first to believe in the resurrection, a faster runner, and so on.” (“An Old Friend Incognito” p. 495).
ADDING AN APELLEAN PERSPECTIVE
There is much in Goulder’s scenario that is persuasive. I think, however, that it is capable of being completed and its defects corrected with help from my own theory regarding the origin of the Fourth Gospel. Readers of my series of Vridar blog posts entitled “The Letters Supposedly Written by Ignatius of Antioch” are aware that in the last five posts of that series I argued that the author of the letters was an Apellean and that his gospel was some form of what became the Gospel according to John. I argued that canonical John is a proto-orthodox reworking of the “Manifestations” (Phaneroseis), the gospel written by the ex-Marcionite Apelles. This post will assume that those contentions are correct and will continue on to show how this theory can mesh with and fill out Goulder’s.
Apelles, as a former Marcionite, came from a background where “The Gospel” was viewed as Paul’s gospel. For Marcionites all the other apostles never really measured up. After Christ’s ascension the Twelve ultimately relapsed into a Judaized understanding of the gospel. Now there is no indication in the extant record that Apelles ever switched his allegiance, so to speak, from Paul to some other Apostle or disciple. He continued to use the Apostolicon:
He (Apelles) uses, too, only the apostle, but it is Marcion’s, that is to say, it is not complete. (Pseudo-Tertullian, Against All Heresies, 6).
And although he did create a new gospel with major input from his prophetess associate Philumena (whose name means ‘Beloved’), the ultimate source of that gospel was still apparently viewed as largely Paul. For Philumena claimed that the source of her information was a phantom (phantasma) who appeared to her
. . . dressed as a boy and sometimes stated he was Christ, sometimes Paul” (fragment from Tertullian’s Against the Apelleans, P.L. 42, 30, n. 1).
My examination of the Ignatian letters confirms this conclusion. They betray knowledge and use of a Johannine-like gospel but, sure enough, nowhere in them is there mention of John, the son of Zebedee. Not even in the letter the prisoner writes to the community at Ephesus—the city where, according to tradition, John spent much of his later life right up “until the time of Trajan” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1.1). No, it is Paul who is praised in the Ignatian letter to Ephesus (IgnEph. 12,2). And although all agree that it was written in the second century, the apostle John does not show up alongside Paul in it or even receive a passing acknowledgment.
Now it might seem to be out of the question to identify Paul as the Beloved Disciple. After all, Paul was a persecutor of the early Christians, was he not? And didn’t his conversion to Christianity occur after Christ ascended back to heaven? But, remember, the persecutor scenario represents a proto-orthodox view of Paul, and Apelles came from a Marcionite background. Marcion rejected the Acts of the Apostles. And it is known that the verse in Galatians where Paul says he persecuted the church of God (Gal. 1:13) was not part of Marcion’s version of the letter. Apparently nowhere in Marcion’s Apostolicon was there anything about Paul being a former persecutor of the church (See Tertullian’s Against Marcion, 5,1).
Thus my Apellean theory can here lend support to Goulder’s hypothesis. An Apellean origin for the Fourth Gospel can explain both why Goulder’s Paul has the prominent role he does in that gospel and why “persecutor” is not part of his c.v.
WHY PAUL IS INCOGNITO
The Beloved Disciple, as Goulder recognizes, is quite a shadowy figure. The Fourth Gospel never clearly identifies him by name. And he first turns up, without introduction, more than halfway through the gospel: “It really is extraordinary to meet him for the first time at the Last Supper, reclining in the best seat on Jesus’ right!” (“An Old Friend Incognito”, pp. 494-495). Goulder supposes that it was the author who made his hero obscure. By keeping him incognito, the author hoped to avoid rejection of his new gospel by Jerusalem Christians who held that Paul was converted only after Jesus’ death.
He therefore fell back on a simple expedient. He had no need to give the apostle’s name. He could let him remain incognito, and refer to him merely as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. In this way his status as the favourite disciple could be repeatedly brought home, and his teaching duly legitimated. Those in his own circle would know whom he was referring to, and the ungodly would be given no occasion to blaspheme. (“An Old Friend Incognito”, p. 499)
But I find it hard to accept that explanation. It does not explain why the Beloved Disciple is missing earlier in the gospel. Could not the same expedient of referring to him merely as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ have been used to describe, for instance, his call by Jesus? The calls of Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathanael are there. Why not his? Could not the same expedient have been used to give the call of the Beloved Disciple the special attention it surely deserved?
Moreover, the shadowy portrayal of the Beloved Disciple is far from being the only problem with the current text of the Fourth Gospel. It shows many signs of dislocations and interventions. It is a rare Johannine commentator who can refrain from suggesting at least one rearrangement of the text to smooth over a rough spot.
I think, then, that my Apellean theory can better explain the sorry state of the text, including its unsatisfactory portrayal of the Beloved Disciple. The text was tampered with by the proto-orthodox redactor who reworked the Apellean gospel. It was he—not the author—who caused the obscurity. The proto-orthodox had their own scenario for Paul. They had already created a very different persona for him, one as a converted former persecutor of Christians. So they could not allow his persona as the Beloved Disciple in proto-John to remain intact. They hid his identity. But how?
I am convinced they did it by assigning one of the anecdotes about him (his call) to someone they named ‘Nathanael,’ and by assigning another one (his being raised from the dead by Jesus) to an individual they named ‘Lazarus’. Thus parts of his bio were severed from the rest of it and used to create Nathanael and Lazarus. In line with Goulder’s theory I will show how certain Pauline passages lend themselves to the kind of interpretation that reveal ‘Nathanael’ and ‘Lazarus’ as ciphers for Paul.
Note that this scenario in effect incorporates a number of particular proposals made previously by various scholars.
- As already noted, Michael Goulder proposed Paul as the Beloved Disciple.
- K. Hanhart is another proponent of that identification.
- H. Spaeth and M. Rovers held that the Beloved Disciple was Nathanael, and that identification has recently been argued by D. Catchpole.
- A. Hilgenfeld and O. Schmiedel held that Nathanael was Paul.
- H. Holtzmann argued that Nathanael was a symbol of Paulinism.
- E.F. Scott, in his The Fourth Gospel, says that “in the story of Nathanael the evangelist alludes symbolically to Paul.” (p. 48).
- In regard to identifying Lazarus as the Beloved Disicple, there are many scholars who have taken that position, including J. Kreyenbuhl, K. Kickendraht, B.G. Griffith, H.M. Draper, F.W. Lewis, F.V. Filson, J.N. Sanders, W.H. Brownlee, J.M. Leonard, V. Eller, M. Stibbe, and T.L. Brodie.
I submit that all of these scholars were partially right. What is needed is to combine their insights and complete them with the help that an Apellean perspective has to offer. The Beloved Disciple Paul was taken apart by the proto-orthodox redactor. He needs to be put back together again.
If one were to choose a Beloved Disciple just based on the call stories, I think practically everyone would choose Nathanael. More attention by far is given to his call. He is the only disciple who receives Jesus’ praise before he has even said a word: “Here is a true Israelite. There is no deceit in him.” And he is the only disciple in any of the four canonical gospels who believes in Jesus from the first moment he meets him: “You are the Son of God.”
And Jesus is clearly delighted by his spontaneous faith in him; so delighted that he promises greater things to come, including a vision of “the sky opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
Goulder, as noted earlier, called attention to how “at every step we seem to feel that he (the Beloved Disciple) is doing better than Peter”. I would argue that this is the case here too. Nathanael/Paul is the Beloved Disciple and his confession of faith that Jesus is “the Son of God” outshines Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the holy one of God.”
By identifying ‘Nathanael’ as the Beloved Disciple two difficulties disappear. After receiving such a grand introduction at the beginning of the gospel, he no longer completely vanishes from it until the very last chapter. And, correspondingly, the Beloved Disciple no longer just appears, without explanation or introduction, in chapter thirteen of the gospel.
And once we recognize that ‘Nathanael’ is just the proto-orthodox label applied to hide Paul’s name, we can understand why Jesus was made to vouch for his truthfulness. The words “there is no deceit in him” have in view statements of Paul like “The God and Father of the Lord Jesus knows… that I do not lie” (2 Cor. 11:31).
And the words of Jesus that foretell the disciple’s future visions (“You will see greater things than these. You will see the sky opened etc.”) look forward to Paul’s, “But I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord” (2 Cor. 12:1). [The context makes clear that the vision was promised to Nathanael alone. But the proto-orthodox redactor apparently realized that the singling out of Nathanael for such a vision could provoke suspicion, so he awkwardly and sloppily made the “you” plural in the final sentence. That is, Jesus says to Nathanael, “You (singular) will see greater things than these. And he (Jesus) said to him (Nathanael), Truly, truly, I say to you (plural), you (plural) will see the heavens opened . . . ” etc.]
THE BOY DISCIPLE
The text I cited earlier about the source of the Apellean gospel contains an item that further strengthens the case for identifying Paul, Nathanael and the Beloved Disciple as the same person. The phantasma who appeared to Philumena and “sometimes stated he was Christ, sometimes Paul” came to her “dressed as a boy.” It seems reasonable to suppose there is some significance in the phantom’s appearance as a boy. It cannot be related to his being a voice box for Christ since, in Apellean and Marcionite belief, Christ descended to earth as an adult. But it would make sense from the standpoint of his being a voice box for Paul. For the name ‘Paul’ is the masculine form of the Latin word for ‘small’, ‘little’.
But I think there is more than wordplay going on here. My suspicion is that, as Apelleans saw it, Paul, the Beloved disciple, had been the smallest disciple, a mere boy disciple of Jesus. And that ‘Paul’ was in fact an early nickname given to him precisely because he was only a boy when he became a disciple. Such a view could have arisen from a misunderstanding of 1 Cor. 15:9: “. . . for I am the least of the apostles.” And Eph 3:8: “Unto me, who am less than the least of the holy ones, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” (my emphases). The word “least” in these passages can mean “small in size” and could be wrongly taken as a reference to a nickname received earlier in life.
In my opinion, seeing the Beloved Disciple as a boy makes better sense of several passages in the Fourth Gospel. At the Last Supper the Beloved Disciple reclined on the breast of Jesus. Johannine commentators assure us that such physical closeness between grown men was nothing out of the ordinary for the time and place that Jesus lived. Still, it seems to me that the incident makes better sense if the person lying on the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper was a child. It jibes better with what is said in Mark 9:36 about Jesus “taking him (a child) into his arms.”
The call of Nathanael, too, makes better sense if he was a child. The delight Jesus exhibits at Nathanael’s approach is reminiscent of the “Suffer the little children to come to me” episodes in the Synoptic gospels. And Nathanael’s expression of surprise that Jesus saw him under the fig tree makes me think of the typical surprise a child shows when, for instance, an uncle magically pulls a coin from the child’s ear: “How did you do that?!” And people have always wondered what Nathanael was doing under the fig tree. If he was a typical boy, he was doing what boys do under fruit trees: picking and eating fruit. And his words, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth” sound like many another boyish quip.
William Harwood, in his Mythology’s Last Gods, wondered whether Jesus’ words, “There is no deceit in him,” might be a hint that Nathanael was mentally retarded. I think it is rather a hint that Nathanael was an ingenuous child. And Jesus, by praising the boy’s candid nature, begins the defense of someone who later in life will be regularly calumniated as a deceiver by his enemies. Jesus is made to vouch in advance for Paul’s later veracity: “There is no deceit in him”.
To be kept in mind too is that the extant patristic record does retain some other traces of belief that the Beloved Disciple was not a young man, but a veritable boy. For example:
We maybe sure that John was then a boy (Latin: “puer”), because ecclesiastical history clearly proves that he lived to the reign of Trajan, that is, he fell asleep in the sixty-eighth year after our Lord’s Passion . . . (Jerome, Against Jovinianus, 1, 26)
“But,” one could reasonably object, “the Beloved Disciple seems to have been known to the high priest (Jn. 18:15). If the Beloved Disciple was a boy, how to explain that acquaintance?”
One possibility I see is by way of Nicodemus. He enters the narrative just a chapter after the call of ‘Nathanael’. And he seems to be the Fourth Gospel’s version of Gamaliel. He is described as a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews (Jn. 3:1). Most Johannine scholars understand “ruler of the Jews” here to mean “member of the Sanhedrin”. And that the author of this gospel viewed the Pharisees as associated with the priests is spelled out, for instance, in Jn. 11:47: “So the chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, “What are we going to do? This man is performing many signs.”
Jesus calls Nicodemus not just “a” teacher of Israel,” but “the teacher of Israel” (Jn. 3:10). We have, then, someone who, like Gamaliel, is presented as a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, and a singularly distinguished teacher of Israel. He comes “at night” to speak with Jesus, which is reminiscent of the ‘secret Christian’ status of Gamaliel in the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions. And the reasoning of Nicodemus—that “no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him” (Jn. 3:2)—has a certain affinity with the reasoning of Gamaliel in Acts of the Apostles: “But a Pharisee in the Sanhedrin named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law, respected by all the people, stood up …. and said to them, ‘… if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God’” (Acts 5: 34, 39).
Now I acknowledge that the Johannine narrative establishes no explicit connection between a boy disciple of Jesus and Nicodemus/Gamaliel. But the topic of Jesus’ nocturnal conversation with the teacher of Israel was the need for rebirth from above in order to enter the kingdom of God. Many scholars recognize that this idea is basically the Johannine equivalent of the Synoptic “Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it” (Mk. 10:15; Mt. 18:3, my emphasis). That this verse has at some point been connected with the Beloved Disciple is witnessed to by Vatican codex 4222:
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 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. (my emphasis)
(Robert Eisler, in his The Enigma of the Fourth Gospel, argues that the tradition behind this passage goes back at least to the late second/early third century CE).
So my suspicion is that the original text contained some connection between the boy disciple and Nicodemus/Gamaliel; that the boy was his pupil before his call by Jesus; and that it was he who told his Pharisee teacher about Jesus. In other words, I suspect that it was in proto-John that the story originated about Paul being “educated strictly in our ancestral Law at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3). Thus the Beloved Disciple would have been known to the high priest (Jn. 18:15) because the boy had previously studied at the feet of the illustrious Nicodemus/Gamaliel.
Lazarus is introduced suddenly in chapter eleven of the Fourth Gospel and is described by the words, “he whom you love” (Jn. 11:4). That description has caught the attention of many scholars and has understandably made Lazarus an intriguing candidate for Beloved Disciple. And he reclines with Jesus (Jn. 12:17), which of course the Beloved Disciple also does at the Last Supper (Jn. 13:23). It has always been troubling though, why there is not the slightest indication of ‘Loved Lazarus’ until so late in the narrative. The scenario I have proposed solves that problem.
Additional reasons why Lazarus makes such a good Beloved Disciple are
- that his home was in Bethany, near Jerusalem, so it would have been close enough to conveniently bring the mother of Jesus there after she was entrusted to him on Golgotha (Jn. 19:27).
- And his up-close and personal experience with grave wrappings could account for the Beloved Disciple’s insight in sizing up the situation of the wrappings in the empty tomb on the morning of the Resurrection (Jn. 20:5).
- Finally, his having already undergone death might explain how the belief arose that the Beloved Disciple would not die (Jn. 21:23).
Now it might seem that, if I am right about Nathanael’s status as a boy, there is no way that he can be the same person who is called ‘Lazarus’ in chapters eleven and twelve. For Lazarus is always viewed as being an older brother of Martha and Mary. But in fact there is nothing in the account to indicate the age of the brother. The pronouns are all masculine, but nowhere is the brother referred to as a man. There is nothing in the narrative to rule out his being a boy, the little brother—not the older brother—of Martha and Mary.
And his status as a boy would make his death all the more tragic and explain even better the grief of his sisters and of Jesus. Isn’t the death of the young considered to be among the saddest things in the human experience? Note how in the Synoptic accounts of raisings from the dead by Jesus the youth of the deceased is an element. Jairus’ daughter is a twelve year old “child” (Mk. 5:42). The widow of Nain’s son is a “young man” (Lk. 7:14).
So I see no reason why ‘Lazarus’ cannot be the continuation of ‘Nathanael’. The location of his home close to Jerusalem brings him close to his teacher Nicodemus/Gamaliel. In Acts 22:3 Paul says, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city (Jerusalem).” The Johannine version of him was apparently from Cana in Galilee (Jn. 21:2), but brought up in Bethany (Jn. 11:1), just outside of Jerusalem.
But if the resurrected brother of Martha and Mary was the Beloved Disciple and ‘Lazarus’ is just a proto-orthodox substitute name to disguise his real identity as Paul, it would mean that Paul was believed, at least by some, to have been raised from the dead by Jesus. How could such a belief have arisen? Is there a Pauline passage, in line with Goulder’s theory, that could have easily been misunderstood to mean that Jesus had raised Paul from the dead?
I think there is a very likely candidate in the verse that stood at the head of Marcion’s and Apelles’ Apostolicon. The Marcionite version of Galatians opened with this verse:
Paul, an apostle, not from men or through man, but through Jesus Christ who raised him from the dead . . . (my emphasis)
Scholars of Marcionism routinely claim that Marcion must have interpreted this verse in a modalistic sense, namely, that Jesus had raised himself from the dead. Perhaps, but this attempt to read Marcion’s mind about the verse is really just a guess, and other scholars, including Hermann Detering, have pointed out that Marcion’s version of the Paulines also included a number of passages that clearly had Jesus being raised by the Father. In any case, it is easy to see how someone who used this reading of Galatians 1:1 (as presumably Apelles and Philumena did) could take it as saying precisely what it appears to say: that Jesus raised Paul from the dead.
BY ANY OTHER NAME
I will finish by tying up a loose end. I have argued not only that the Beloved Disciple was Paul, but also that ‘Paul’ was only a nickname. Which leaves the question: What was Paul’s given name believed to be?
I think the most likely answer is ‘John’. That is the name that came to be attached to the Fourth Gospel at least from the time of Irenaeus. And John was a common name, so it would not be cause for surprise that two of the disciples were thought to have shared it: John the son of Zebedee, and John nicknamed “the little one” (Paul). But I suspect that this latter John was also known by some Christians under another nickname, one which called attention to his alleged great longevity: “the Aged One” (Elder). Papias of Hierapolis (100 miles east of Ephesus), writing around 140 CE, knows of a John the Aged One, but makes no mention of a Paul. This is the opposite of what is in the Ignatian letters (Paul, but no John) which were written at about the same time and place.
The short-lived Apellean sect preferred to use the first nickname, Paul. The proto-orthodox, on the other hand, preferred to use either his given name, John, or—in the case of Irenaeus—his second nickname, the Aged One, as a way to make him distinct from the proto-orthodox version of Paul.
(I have reformatted some sections of Roger’s article for easier blog reading. — Neil)
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