The idea that “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” also known as “the beloved disciple,” is a woman surfaces from time to time. Some suggest this disciple was Mary Magdalene or Mary of Bethany. However, the Greek grammar of the verses that mention the beloved disciple unmistakably, and overwhelmingly, rules out that this person was a woman, as shown below.
Ben Witherington has argued that the beloved disciple was Lazarus of Bethany (cf. John 11:3, 36). The beloved disciple first appears in John chapter 13 after the raising of Lazarus in chapter 11, and not before. James Tabor, following Robert Eisenman, argues that the beloved disciple was James the Less, a brother or relative of Jesus and a priest (Mark 15:40; Matt. 27:56 cf. John 18:15–16; 19:26).
Traditionally, the beloved disciple is thought to be John, one of the sons of Zebedee, who was part of Jesus’s innermost circle of three (Peter, James, and John). Whoever he was, he appears to have been the author of the Gospel of John (John 21:24 cf. John 21:20). The author of what we know as the Gospel of John does not give his name.
In this somewhat technical blog post, I quote every verse that mentions “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” a phrase that occurs five times in more or less the same form, and only in John’s Gospel. There is no similar phrase in the other canonical Gospels. And I comment on the Greek grammar of the words that refer to the beloved disciple.
People and Grammatical Gender in Greek
Like the other books of the New Testament, the Gospel of John was written in Greek. So before we get to the five “beloved disciple” verses, here is a short, basic note on grammatical gender in ancient Greek when speaking about a person.
A generic or hypothetical person is typically spoken of using grammatically masculine language (as in John 3:16, for example, where the three Greek words for “all who believe” are all masculine). This is because the masculine gender is the default grammatical gender when speaking about a generic person, who may not necessarily be male. Masculine grammatical gender is also used when speaking about a group of people that may include women.
However, generally speaking, a distinct individual, such as a real person, will be spoken of using feminine language if she is a woman, and masculine language if he is a man. Tabitha, for instance, was a female disciple (μαθήτρια) and the words used for her in Acts 9 (pronouns, nouns, and participles) are grammatically feminine. The language for the beloved disciple, who was an individual and a real person, is consistently masculine.
The following five verses contain the phrase “the disciple whom Jesus loved” or something similar. In these verses, I’ve italicised the words that I comment on.
The Beloved Disciple at the Last Supper
John 13:23: One of his disciples was reclining close to Jesus’s “heart” (κόλπος), [the one] whom Jesus loved.”
The Greek relative pronoun meaning “whom” is grammatically masculine in John 13:23 (ὃν ἠγάπα ὁ Ἰησοῦς: “whom Jesus loved”). The participle for “reclining” and the word for “one” at the beginning of the verse are also masculine (ἦν ἀνακείμενος εἷς ἐκ τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ: “One of his disciples was reclining”).
The Beloved Disciple at the Cross
John 19:26: When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple standing close by, whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.”
In John 19:26, the Greek words “τὸν μαθητὴν παρεστῶτα ὃν …” (“the disciple standing close by, whom …”)—an article, noun, participle, and relative pronoun—are all grammatically masculine.
Furthermore, Jesus says to his mother about this disciple, “here is ‘your son’ (ὁ υἱός σου).” Son! In the following verses, John 19:27-28, the beloved disciple continues to be referred to with masculine language in the Greek. He is clearly a man.
The Beloved Disciple at the Empty Tomb
John 20:2: Then Mary Magdalene ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
In John 20:2, the words “τὸν ἄλλον μαθητὴν ὃν …” (“the other disciple whom …”)—an article, adjective, noun, and relative pronoun—are all masculine.
The beloved disciple is called “the other disciple” (masculine words in Greek) three more times in this passage (John 20:3, 4, 8). Plus, the participle for “stooped down” (παρακύψας) is masculine, and it says that Peter was following “him” (αὐτῷ), a masculine pronoun (John 20:5).
In this passage, and in John 21, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is compared favourably with Peter. Note also that Mary Magdalene and the beloved disciple are together in this scene, further disproving the speculation that she is the beloved disciple.
Interestingly, the verb for “loved” in John 20:2 (ἐφίλει from φιλέω) is different from the verb in the four other verses about the disciple whom Jesus “loved” (ἠγάπα from ἀγαπάω).
The Beloved Disciple Recognises Jesus
John 21:7: Then the disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water.
In John 21:7, the words “ὁ μαθητὴς ἐκεῖνος ὃν …” (the disciple, the one whom …”)—an article, noun, demonstrative pronoun, and relative pronoun—are all masculine.
Note that the beloved disciple is with Peter on a fishing boat. Peter and the sons of Zebedee, James and John, were among a group of seven male disciples who had gone fishing (John 21:2–3ff). Women aren’t mentioned in this group.
Peter Asks Jesus about the Beloved Disciple
John 21:20–21: Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following. (This was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” (cf. John 13:25).
In John 21:20 the words “τὸν μαθητὴν ὃν … ἀκολουθοῦντα” (the disciple whom … was following”)—an article, noun, relative pronoun, and the participle for “following”—are all masculine.
Peter had been asking about the future of the beloved disciple (John 21:20–23).
After the short discussion on “the disciple whom Jesus loved” in John 21:20–23, the author of the Gospel of John begins to close his book and says about himself, “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24, italics added).
So is the beloved disciple in John’s Gospel a woman? Not a chance. The grammar rules this out, as does the context of several passages where the beloved disciple is mentioned.
The “other” (ἄλλος) disciple in John 18:15–16, who was known to the high priest, may also be the beloved disciple (cf. John 1:35–40; 20:2–4, 8). See also Eusebius, Church History 3.31.3.
© Margaret Mowczko 2022
All Rights Reserved
Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany
Who was Mary the Magdalene?
Jesus had many female followers – many!
Partnering Together: Jesus and Women
The Elder and the Lady: A Look at the Language of 2 John
An Introduction to John’s Gospel
All my articles on Greek words are here.