The Man Who Stood Beneath the Cross of Christ

Jesus clearly prophesies His passion, death and resurrection. But the Apostles seem ill-disposed to accept the idea of His death. And once Jesus dies, they are even less prone to embrace the notion of His resurrection. This is true for the Eleven, His disciples in general, and even the women who visit His tomb. The one remarkable exception is the man who stood beneath the cross of Christ in support of His close friend, the disciple Jesus loved. He unhesitatingly believes. 

In the Synoptics there are three parallel accounts of Jesus’ prophecies regarding His passion, death and resurrection. In Mark, foundation of the other Synoptics, the first prediction occurs in Chapter 8. Jesus explained that He “was destined to suffer grievously” (Mk 8:31), be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, be killed and, three days later, rise. 

The second prophecy occurs in Chapter 9. It is vague about His betrayers but clear regarding Jesus’ death and resurrection (Mk 9:31). The third prophecy is the clearest. It suggests the involvement of the Romans and highlights specific sufferings of Jesus. The chief priests and scribes “will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the pagans, who will mock Him and spit at Him and scourge Him and put Him to death; and, after three days, He will rise again” (Mk 10:33-34). In Matthew’s version of this prophecy, death by crucifixion is indicated (20:19). 

Although the evangelists, writing in hindsight, could have amplified or detailed Jesus’ prophecies, there can be little doubt that Jesus did, in fact, prophesy the events of passion, death and resurrection. 

Nevertheless, Jesus’ close companions are not psychologically disposed to accept the forthcoming events “[T]hey did not understand what He said. . .” (Mk 9:32). Peter chides Jesus for talking about dying (Mt 16:22). In the Garden of Gethsemane he wields a sword, courageously but misguidedly, defending Jesus (Jn 18:10). The Synoptics do not identify Peter by name. 

When Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Mary, mother of James, informed the Eleven and others that Jesus’ tomb lay empty and that angels had told them Jesus was risen, they refused to believe them (Lk 24:11). Even when Mary of Magdala informed the Apostles that Jesus appeared to her, they rejected her testimony (Mk 16:11). They reacted similarly when two disciples reported that Jesus had appeared to them in the countryside (Mk 16:13). The Apostle Thomas rejects even the testimony of his fellow Apostles that Jesus is alive and appeared to them. “Unless I see the holes that the nails made. . . unless I can put my hand into His side, I refuse to believe (Jn. 20:25). When Jesus finally appeared to the Eleven, “He reproached them for their incredulity and obstinacy. . .” (Mk 16:14). 

Mary Magdalene and companions apparently accepted the testimony of the angels that Jesus was risen from the dead (Mt 28:8; Lk. 24:8). But the sight of the empty tomb by itself left them perplexed. “[T]hey stood there not knowing what to think” (Lk 24:4). They assumed that Jesus’ body had been stolen. “‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb . . . and we don’t know where they have put Him’ ” (Jn 20:2).

The Man Who Believed

The one person disposed to believe Jesus rose from the dead, and who did so unhesitatingly upon viewing the empty tomb, was the man who courageously stood beside the cross of Christ during the crucifixion ordeal. This is the man into whose hands Jesus entrusted His mother’s care, the one He personally gave to His mother as son: the man for whom Jesus had a special love. “Seeing his mother and the disciple He loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, ‘Woman, this is your son’ ” (Jn 19:26-27). 

When Mary Magdalene reported to Peter and the beloved disciple that Jesus’ tomb lay empty, both men ran to the grave. The beloved disciple arrived first but, out of respect for Peter, did not enter. Peter entered upon arrival and ascertained for himself that the body of Jesus was missing. The burial cloths were there but not Jesus (Jn 20:2-7). Peter observed, but seemingly without full comprehension. “He bent down and saw the binding cloths but nothing else; he then went back home amazed at what had happened” (Lk 24:12). The disciple whom Jesus loved “also went in; he saw and he believed. Till this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of the scripture, that He must rise from the dead” (Jn 20:8-9).

Traditional Perspective

Who is this disciple that Jesus loved in a special way? Why does he enjoy an extraordinary insight? 

We know for certain that the beloved disciple is the authority behind John’s Gospel. The Gospel itself tells us. “This disciple is the one who vouches for these things and has written them down. . .” (Jn 21:24). He witnessed Jesus being stabbed with a lance. “This is the evidence of one who saw it — trustworthy evidence — and he gives it so that you may believe. . .” (Jn 19:35). 

This eye witness of Jesus, authority behind the Fourth Gospel, tradition tells us, was John the Apostle, son of Zebedee. He was the disciple for whom Jesus had a special love. A half-century ago, mainstream Catholic biblical scholarship concurred with this non-doctrinal, non-binding position. This view was anchored to the testimony of St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. ca. 202). Writing around 180, he states that the author of the Fourth Gospel was Jesus’ disciple John at Ephesus. The tradition of Johannine authorship seemingly was not seriously contradicted by any other opinion of antiquity (Vawter, “The Gospel According to John,” p. 414, The Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1968). Irenaeus had not, however, specifically identified the John in question as John the son of Zebedee. 

Today we know from the writing of Papias, bishop of Hierapolis (d. 220) that there was a second John known as Presbyter John. It seems that Presbyter John was the principal of the Johannine School in Ephesus. He appears closely connected to the Fourth Gospel, which Irenaeus indicates was produced at Ephesus, and to have exercised an essential role in its definitive shaping. He apparently was likewise the author and sender of letters two and three of John’s Letters. 

Although Irenaeus states that the Lord’s disciple John composed the fourth Gospel in his later years while living in Ephesus, the ancient writings do not corroborate the notion that he lived in Ephesus. Irenaeus’s attribution is seemingly based on his remembrance of the teaching of St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, to whom Irenaeus listened as a boy. According to Irenaeus, Polycarp had known the disciple John. Today, however, scholars suspect that Irenaeus was mistaken about Polycarp’s knowing Jesus’ disciple John. Likely, Irenaeus got two different Johns confused. John the son of Zebedee may never have reached advanced years.  

A Church tradition, reflected in some fifth- and sixth-century martyrologies, and in the writing of George Hamartolus (ninth century) and Philip of Side (430), suggests John the Apostle died young (Brown and Maloney, “Gospel According to John,” New Catholic Encyclopedia 7, p. 910). Mark’s Gospel also suggests this. “Jesus said to them [James and John], ‘The cup that I must drink you shall drink’ ” (Mk 10:39). 

The implication is that both brothers would be martyrs. The association of John the son of Zebedee with the Fourth Gospel may be linked to its late appearance and popularity with the Gnostics. Apostolic authorship would provide the Gospel with respectability and contribute to its receiving canonical status.

New Perspective 

Such external reasons along with internal ones helped produce a reversal of thinking among mainstream Catholic biblical scholars. Their position today is that of uncertainty regarding the identity of the authority behind the Fourth Gospel. Hence, for them the authorship should be viewed as anonymous. Unknown is the identity of the beloved disciple. 

Among scholars adopting this position are Raymond Brown, Francis Moloney, Rudolf Schnackenburg, and Pheme Perkins. Brown wrote (1979) “. . .I am inclined to change my mind. . .from the position that I took. . .identifying the Beloved Disciple as. . .John the son of Zebedee” (Brown, The Community of Beloved Disciples, 1999, pp. 33-34). Later he held that the evangelist’s identity is unknown, “for it is quite unlikely that the disciple was one of the Twelve.” Francis Moloney joined Brown in stating: “The. . .evidence. . .is against the Beloved Disciple and the Apostle John being one and the same figure. . .” (Brown and Moloney, “Gospel,” p. 910).  

Many scholars believe the author of John co-founded the Johannine Community and was “probably a disciple of Jesus but not the son of Zebedee or one of the Twelve Apostles” (“Gospel,” p. 910). The distinguished Catholic biblical scholar Rudolf Schnackenburg in 1970 hypothesized that the beloved disciple was a contemporary follower of Jesus but not one of the Twelve.  

He “did not share the experience of Jesus’ entire ministry, but was possibly a witness of the last events, perhaps a Jerusalem disciple of Jesus.” In 1975, he asserted “that the riddle of the disciple whom Jesus loved is, admittedly, not solved. . .” (Schnackenburg, Gospel, 3 p. 387).  

After presenting a series of difficulties regarding the identification of the beloved disciple with John the Son of Zebedee, Pheme Perkins (1990) admits that “scholars today give quite a different answer to the question about the authorship of the Fourth Gospel” than they did in the past, one that, nevertheless, recognizes in the Gospel “a witness to the legitimate development of apostolic faith” (Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel According to John,” The New Jerome Biblilical Commentary, 1990, p. 947).

Gospel Clues

Does John’s Gospel offer any clues as to who could be this Jerusalem disciple of Jesus, this especially loved disciple who stood beneath the Cross and enjoyed extraordinary insight into the resurrection? It seems reasonable to look within the Gospel for such pointers since external evidence is incapable of solving the beloved-disciple enigma. 

Actually there may be some interesting clues. “There was a man named Lazarus who lived in the village of Bethany with this two sisters, Mary and Martha, and he was ill. . . .The sisters sent this message to Jesus, ‘Lord, the man you love is ill’ ” (Jn 11:1,3). If Lazarus is the man for whom Jesus has a special love, could he not be the beloved disciple? 

The special love Jesus had for Lazarus is mentioned two additional times. “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. . .” (Jn 11:5); “Jesus wept; and the Jews said, ‘See how much he loved him!’ ” (Jn 11:35-36). 

Floyd Filson inquires whether John’s Gospel unveils the beloved disciple’s identity. He answers: “Yes, it does. It points to Lazarus” (Floyd V. Filson, The Gospel According to John, 1963, p. 22).  

Alan Culpepper concurs: “On the basis of the Gospel alone, one might conclude that the beloved disciple was Lazarus . . .who is introduced as ‘he whom you love’ ” (11:3). J.N. Sanders agrees. “John XI:5 ‘Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus’ is I believe . . . a clear indication of the identity of the Beloved Disciple. . . .He was Lazarus.” (Regarding the issue of selected language to designate the special love Jesus had, I rely on the authority of these three respected scholars.)  

“Of all the disciples of Jesus this Gospel names, he [Lazarus] is the only man of whom it is said that Jesus loved him” (Filson, John, p. 22). 

Lazarus spent four days in the tomb before Jesus miraculously recalled him to life. “The dead man came out, his feet and hands bound. . .and a cloth round his face” (Jn 11:43-44). Do you suppose that Jesus’ raising of Lazarus would provide him with more insight into the meaning of Jesus’ empty tomb than that available to others? Granted, an intimate relationship with Jesus would result in extraordinary knowledge, as Pope Benedict indicates (Ratzinger, Jesus, pp. 222-23).  

Nevertheless, all things equal, a person who would have experienced for himself both death and “resurrection” would likely have more insight into the resurrection than others and more ability to interpret signs indicative of it. 

What is more, Lazarus could easily have obtained a remarkable insight into the resurrection from his sister Martha. When Jesus arrived in Bethany, Martha met him. She expressed faith that God would grant Jesus whatever he requested. Jesus then spoke: “‘Your brother. . .will rise again.’ Martha said, ‘I know he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said: “I am the resurrection. If anyone believes in me even if he dies he will live’ ” (Jn 11:24-25). If Lazarus knew from a conversation with his sister Martha that Jesus was the resurrection, could he have failed to interpret the meaning of the empty tomb? 

Would Lazarus’s dying, then rising, at Jesus’ command not have emboldened him in the face of mortal danger, making possible his standing beneath the cross of Christ as Jesus’ only male supporter? When the crucified Jesus assigns his mother, Mary, into the care of the disciple he loved, the disciple immediately “made a place for her in his home (Jn 19:27). If the beloved disciple were Lazarus, he could accept Mary that very night because he lived close by. Bethany was located just outside the boundaries of Jerusalem to the east on the southeastern slope of the Mount of Olives. 

In chapter twelve, one chapter after we witness Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead and learn of his special love for him, we find Jesus again in Bethany. He is seated at a meal with Lazarus. Martha and Mary are present too. “Jesus went to Bethany. . .They gave a dinner for him there; Martha waited on them and Lazarus was among those at table. Mary brought in a pound of very costly ointment, pure nard, and with it anointed the feet of Jesus. . .” (Jn 12:1-3). 

At the Last Supper, a chapter later, we first encounter a reference to an unnamed “disciple Jesus loved.” He was “reclining next to Jesus” (Jn 13:23). The passage does not say the person was Lazarus. It would seem natural, however, that he was. Lazarus is the man Jesus loved, the one he had just dined with in Chapter 12. Does Lazarus really need to be named? He has been identified in Chapter 11. 

Without an explicit identification, we cannot, of course, be absolutely certain Lazarus is the beloved disciple. He does, however, make an interesting candidate. Not only would the man “resurrected” by Jesus be the first to understand the meaning of the empty tomb but the first to recognize Jesus when he appears on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. “The disciple Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord’ ” (Jn 21:7).

Jerusalem Disciple

Numerous arguments support the position that the disciple Jesus loved was from the Jerusalem area rather than an Apostle from Galilee and specifically John the son of Zebedee. Here are some.  

1. The principal stage for Jesus’ public ministry in John is Jerusalem and its environs. In the Synoptics it is Galilee. If the author is Galilean, why the heavy focus on Judaea? It would be different if he were a Jerusalem disciple.16  

2. When John’s Gospel places Jesus in Galilee, it provides at best vague geographical descriptions. But when it depicts him in Jerusalem, it tends to be precise and specific in its area descriptions and, according to archaeological findings, quite exact. Doesn’t this knowledge of detail suggest a native Judaean?  

3. John’s Gospel rarely refers by name to any of the Twelve; some are never mentioned. There is no complete list of the Apostles as there is in the Synoptics and Acts (Mt 10:2-4; Mk 3:16-19; Lk 6: 14-16; Acts 1:13). If the Gospel were written by an Apostle, he would certainly know their names. Would he not mention them? 

4. Important episodes featuring John the son of Zebedee in the Synoptics are missing in the fourth Gospel. Peter, James, and John were present when Jesus raised Jairus’s daughter (Mk 5:37). They accompanied him at the transfiguration on Mount Tabor (Mk 9:2) and were with him in the Garden of Gethsemane during his agony (Mk 14:33). Why is there silence in John’s Gospel on these significant events if the beloved disciple is John the Apostle and was present at each?

Historical Issue

These arguments suggest the contention that the beloved disciple was Lazarus of Bethany. They do not prove it. There is insufficient evidence to determine decisively the identity of the disciple whom Jesus loved. That he was Lazarus, however, is an intriguing hypothesis, an exciting conjecture. Such are welcomed in the field of history, which is what we are dealing with here. Although there is a longstanding Catholic tradition, reaching back to Iranaeus of Lyons, that the disciple Jesus loved was John the Apostle, the issue is not one of doctrine. 

Whoever the beloved disciple might have been, he deserves our deep appreciation for providing us with an authoritative overview of Jesus’ public life, an eyewitness account of His final hours, and testimony of His resurrection. He merits our admiration for courageously standing beneath the cross of Christ and our thankfulness for embracing on our behalf the task of caring for the Church’s great treasure, the Mother of the Son of God and our Mother, the Virgin Mary. His example of believing without seeing warrants our emulation: particularly during this year of faith. 

The Gospel of John witnesses to the authentic development of Apostolic faith — as indicated by its inclusion in the New Testament canon — regardless of who stood beneath the Cross of Christ because its principal author, the guarantor of its truthfulness, is not an imperfect witness, a mere human being, but the Holy Spirit. TP 

Dr.DeCelles, Ph.D., is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Religious Studies, Marywood University Scranton, Pa.