The Beloved Disciple
The gospel reading focuses on the figure of the Beloved Disciple who is first presented at the Last Supper with his ears on the Lord’s chest. Our iconography does not do justice to the image described in the gospel of John which sees the disciples reclining for the meal, not seated at table. The beloved disciple could have been so positioned that he practically had his head against the chest of Jesus as the sketch below illustrates. In the illustration below, Peter had just called the attention of the disciple to tell him to ask who it was who betrayed him. The proximity of the disciple to Jesus would be such that if he turns his head to ask Peter’s question, he is going to have his left ear touching the chest of the one beside him. But the image that John really intends to give his readers is that the Beloved Disciple is the one who has his ears at the heart of Jesus — as it were — so as to listen to him more closely.
The mysterious figure of the beloved disciple closely follows Jesus into the house of high priest and even shows up beneath the cross. It was to him that Jesus entrusts his mother. We are told that he responded well by taking her “into his own” (Greek) — a phrase which means that he took her into his value system. In the resurrection narratives, it is the beloved disciple and Peter who first get the news from the Magdalene and it is the beloved disciple who “believes” upon seeing the state of the empty tomb. It is also the this same disciple who first recognizes Jesus at the beginning of John 21. Until this latter episode, the beloved disciple is presented as if he were some kind of placeholder for any disciple who could answer the question: “Given your present relationship with the Lord, can you identify the beloved disciple as you yourself?” This is what Martin Smith means when he writes: “Perhaps the disciple is never named, never individualized, so that we can more easily accept that he bears witness to an intimacy that is meant for each one of us. The closeness that he enjoyed is a sign of the closeness that is mine and yours because we are in Christ and Christ is in us.” But in John 21:20-25, a historical memory is being presented.
In the present gospel selection, the evangelist corrects a misconception about the beloved disciple who was rumored to be in some way immortal. The evangelist corrects the rumor indicating that Jesus was asking a rhetorical question in response to Peter’s question.
But Jesus had not told him that he would not die,
just “What if I want him to remain until I come?
What concern is it of yours?”
The rumor could have spread because of a report to the disciples about this private meeting with Jesus and the longevity of the beloved disciple’s life. The evangelist corrects the rumor then adds that it was the beloved disciple who is (the living?) witness to the veracity of the accounts given in the book. The author of John 21, if he were different from the beloved disciple seems to indicate that the beloved disciple was the author of the gospel until John 20 where we find the first conclusion of the Gospel of John.
It is this disciple who testifies to these things and has written them (until John 20), and we know that his testimony is true.
Otherwise, the last lines of John 21 would have been added later on at the beloved disciple’s death by a different author who attributes even John 21 to his authorship.
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