Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Is the Beloved Disciple in John’s Gospel a Woman?

Introduction

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. Traditionally, however, 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).

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 nothing similar 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 Greek for “all who believe” is masculine). This is because the masculine gender is the default grammatical gender when speaking about a generic person, who may not necessarily be male, and also 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. 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) (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 boat. Peter and the sons of Zebedee, James and John, were among a group of male disciples who were fishing from the boat (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).

Conclusion

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).

Is the beloved disciple in John’s Gospel a woman? Not a chance. Nevertheless, in John 11:5 it says, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister [Mary] and Lazarus.” This statement uses the same verb with the same form (ἠγάπα) used in John 13:23, 19:26, 21:7 and 21:20 for the beloved disciple.

© Margaret Mowczko 2022
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Explore more

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.

13 thoughts on “Is the Beloved Disciple in John’s Gospel a Woman?

  1. Thanks for this welcome, sane, clear, concise review of the evidence. You’d think John 20:2 alone would have quashed that theory that “the disciple Jesus loved” was Mary Magdalene long ago, but evidently not.

    1. Hi Heather, A while back someone I know was insistent that the beloved disciple was Mary Magdalene. She kept messaging me with “proof” even though it is grammatically and contextually impossible. And the idea that Mary Magdalene as the beloved disciple still pops up occasionally.

      The other day, someone commented on my blog and asked if Mary of Bethany was the beloved disciple. I started replying and realised I could use the information as a blog post. So the next time someone asks about this, I can just give them the link to the article.

      Glad you liked the article.

  2. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ mother Mary is always referred to as “the mother of Jesus” and never by name as Mary. I read somewhere (perhaps here?) that this is because on the cross Jesus said to his mother “Woman, here is your son” and said to the disciple whom he loved “Here is your mother” and from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. So, from that time onwards he had called her “mother”, and it seemed wierd to call her “Mary” in the gospel he wrote. He couldn’t call her “mother” in the gospel, because she wasn’t his mother at that time (and it would be confusing), so he called her “the mother of Jesus”. This is therefore evidence that the disciple whom Jesus loved is in fact the author of the gospel.

    Other internal and external evidence suggests that the author of the gospel is the disciple John, which implies that the beloved disciple is John.

    1. Hi Martin, Yes, there are bits and pieces of “evidence” within the Gospel of John that, when put together, point to John, the son of Zebedee, being the author. And a few ancient sources, quoted by Eusebius, tell us that John was encouraged to write his account of Jesus’s ministry by the Ephesian Church.

      I hadn’t noticed that Mary is not mentioned by name in John’s Gospel. I just had a look for myself. She’s mentioned only in John 2:1-12 (the wedding at Cana) and in John 19:25-27 (at the cross). I’m not sure what to make of the fact that she’s not named in John but is named in the other Gospels that were written decades earlier.

  3. Marg, Thank you for this clear teaching with detailed explanations. Do you know if other authors of memoirs in this Greco-Roman or Jewish culture may have referred to themselves in the third person or indirectly as this author did?

    1. That’s a great question, Robert. Let me think about it and get back to you.

      1. Julius Cæsar comes to mind.

  4. Excellent info! Thank you! I’ll have to admit that I was hesitant to read the blog. I was concerned you may be setting the stage for the subject to be a woman. Don’t get me wrong, I love to study strong and faithful women of the Bible. However, I don’t want to make it a “have to” case. I do want women to be recognized and given their due.

    1. Hi Connie, My aim is always to provide accurate information based on what I see in the biblical text. Whether I discuss fringe ideas, as I have here, or more well-known ideas, I am guided by the actual words on the pages of the Bible.

      1. Marg,
        THANK YOU so so MUCH for all your hard work researching and writing. It is MUCH APPRECIATED!! I am GRATEFUL that you are using the talents that God has given you to share His LOVE and a deeper understanding of His character.

        1. Hi Becky, thanks for your comment.
          Also, I got a message saying your subscription didn’t work because of the email address you used. If you want, I can change it to the email address you’ve used in this comment. (I never share email addresses.)

  5. I guess it’s best to stay with John as the author. The only thing is that I suspect John 21:24 to be written by John’s disciples.

    But I can understand a desire to find a female author in the NT. I think the best candidate for that would be the «letter» to the Hebrews (I think it is a speech, rather than a letter). I read Ruth Hoppin’s book, where she claims that the author is Priscilla. While I wasn’t convinced about that, I still think there is some credibility to the idea of a female author. The argument goes like this: Why would the author be unknown, unless someone hid the identity on purpose? And why would someone do that, unless the author was a woman, and the someone either (a) disliked that himself, or (b) suspected that others might dislike it?

    While not a fully convincing argument, it isn’t insignificant either.

    1. I can also understand why some would love at least one book of the Bible to have been written by a woman. And maybe one or two of them are. Many books of the Bible are anonymous; the author does not give his (or her) name. And some books and psalms weren’t written by a single author. Perhaps women were involved.

      But it’s impossible that the beloved disciple is a woman. I’m a teeny bit irritated that this idea keeps popping up as though it’s plausible.

      I’m also unconvinced by Ruth Hopppins’ and, before her, Adolf von Harnack’s suggestion that Hebrews was written by Priscilla. I once closely looked at a Psalm 42-43. Some thought it was written by a woman because of feminine grammar, but the premise didn’t hold up. Nevertheless, maybe women were included in the group “the sons of Korah” who wrote this and other psalms.

      Even if we don’t know who the authors are of some Bible books, we have a couple that focus on women, and several accounts recorded in the New Testament must have come from reliable female sources.

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