10 Reasons I Think Lazarus, Not John, Is the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved

This post is part of my personal blog. It is not intended to be representative of any church or other organization I am associated with.


Like you probably do now, I used to assume that the Fourth Gospel was written solely by John the apostle. The fact is we don’t know for sure who wrote it. At the end of the gospel in 21:24, the writer says that “the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things” is “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. If we can figure out who that was, then we should have an idea who wrote the Fourth Gospel.

The reason why John is typically assumed to be the writer has very little to do with the inspired text itself. There is a near unanimous assumption in the centuries that followed, all the way until today, that the gospel ought to be associated with John. The earliest example of this wasn’t written until nearly a century after the Fourth Gospel is thought to have been written. Irenaeus, after referencing Matthew, Mark, and Luke as the writers of the other three gospels, says, “Afterward, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon his breast, did himself publish a gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.” He confidently attributes the Fourth Gospel to John throughout his work Against Heresies (which you can easily find and read online for free). Irenaeus was a disciple of someone named Polycarp, and Polycarp was actually a disciple of John the apostle himself. There is no reason I know of to believe Irenaeus had any motivation to misidentify the source of the Fourth Gospel. He appears to write with great sincerity and passion for truth. While he doesn’t make a particular case for why he believes John to be the writer, it is very clear he believes that John was the disciple whom Jesus loved, and that he was involved in the production of the Fourth Gospel, and he seems to be a pretty credible resource for that information. Normally that would all be enough to convince me of the tradition that John was the sole writer.

I think the biblical text points to another writer, Lazarus of Bethany. I think the case for Lazarus comes easily and naturally from within the gospel itself, and it is much more convincing than the limited external historical references we have to John. It’s not that John can’t fit what we know about the “disciple whom Jesus loved”, it’s that Lazarus fits much better.

Either way, I believe the text to be an inspired work of God. Regardless of who you believe was involved in writing it, it is more important to me that we agree on that. I also think there is value in considering the case for Lazarus. Seeing Lazarus in the text as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” gives us a better understanding of Jesus, and it informs our understanding of the events before and after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Lazarus is only mentioned in the Fourth Gospel. This isn’t necessarily evidence for Lazarus as the writer since nearly ALL the content of the Fourth Gospel is unique, unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke who often repeat and retell many of the same things. Still, if Lazarus is the writer, it makes sense that the narrative of his own resurrection and it’s impact would play a prominent role in his perspective on the story of Jesus.

Lazarus is introduced to the reader as the disciple whom Jesus loved. The first time we ever read about Lazarus is in 11:1ff. Jesus is brought a message from Mary and Martha that their brother, Lazarus, is sick. The messenger does not identify Lazarus by name. Lazarus is referred to as “he whom you love”. Upon receiving this message, Jesus indicates in his response that he knows exactly who this message is about. He returns to Bethany and is brought to the tomb. The text says, “Jesus wept,” and those who saw it said, “See how He loved him!” It is after this point in the text, and not ever before, that we begin reading about “the disciple whom Jesus loved”.

Lazarus was visited by Jesus before he entered Jerusalem the week leading up to his death. In 12:9, we read of a large crowd of the Jews in Jerusalem that went to Bethany because they wanted to see both Jesus and Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. It is immediately following this that Jesus enters Jerusalem to another large crowd shouting, “Hosanna!” We know that the disciple whom Jesus loved was in Jerusalem with Jesus up until the crucifixion. The text does not explicitly state that Lazarus entered Jerusalem with Jesus, but considering their close interaction immediately preceding Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city, it is not unreasonable to think that Lazarus might have gone with him.

The production of the Fourth Gospel may be rightly attributed to both Lazarus and John. Because Lazarus was leading many people to believe in Jesus, in 12:10 we read that the chief priests wanted to kill them both. Many have speculated as to why John may have chosen to remain anonymous as the writer. Perhaps he desired to keep the attention on Jesus rather than himself. This would make even more sense for Lazarus, since he, like Jesus, was raised from the dead, and he was getting some of the same attention, both curious and devious, that Jesus was getting. Perhaps this might also be why John came to be associated with the Fourth Gospel exclusively. Maybe he delivered it and affirmed it. Maybe it was a joint effort, but became associated with John alone due to the importance of his apostolic authority. What the gospel writer actually says in 21:24 is that the disciple whom Jesus loved testified about and wrote about these things, and that “we know that his testimony is true”. It could be that the gospel writer is referring to himself in both the first and the third person here, but it could also be that John as a prominent apostle is affirming the words that Lazarus wrote, while functioning as a sort of publisher. Maybe that’s why Irenaeus specifies that John “did himself publish” the Fourth Gospel.

Lazarus could have been present in the upper room. This is critical, because according to 13:23, “There was reclining on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved.” I have noticed in studying this that many people assume that only the twelve apostles were with Jesus as he ate the Passover meal the night he was arrested. The Bible never says that. In Mark 14:20, after Jesus had already specified that his betrayer was someone eating with him at that Passover meal, he narrows the pool of potential traitors by specifying that it was “one of the twelve”. That could be a reiteration of what he had already specified I suppose, but this seems to me to be an indication that others were eating with them. Perhaps Peter gesturing to the disciple whom Jesus loved that he should ask Jesus who it was that would betray him could have something to do with Lazarus not being one of the twelve. Otherwise why wouldn’t Peter just ask Jesus himself?

It is reasonable to think Lazarus would have been known to the high priest. Peter and another disciple were following Jesus at a distance after he was arrested. This disciple isn’t called “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and may be someone else entirely, but many people believe it to be, especially since the disciple whom Jesus loved is later at the cross with Jesus’ mother. In 18:15-16, the other disciple is able to get himself and Peter past the doorkeeper of the court because he was “known to the high priest”. Lazarus was probably relatively wealthy, considering that in 12:3 while Jesus was visiting his house, his sister “took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus”. They lived in Bethany, only a mile or two from Jerusalem, so it makes sense that someone of his social status living as close as he did to Jerusalem would have been known to the high priest. In contrast, prior to following Jesus, John was a fisherman from the Sea of Galilee, some seventy miles from Jerusalem.

Lazarus is a good fit as Mary’s caregiver. While hanging on the cross, Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing together. In 19:26-27, he said to them, “Behold, your mother,” and, “Behold, your son.” If Jesus was asking the disciple to become her permanent caregiver, Lazarus seems to be a better fit for this than John. Not only was Lazarus probably financially secure, but he also wasn’t one of the twelve apostles handpicked to devote their lives to the spread of the gospel to the world.

Lazarus had a home less than an hour from Jerusalem. Mary did have other children, so it could also be that Jesus was simply appointing this disciple from the cross to care for her in this time of intense grief, and to get her away from the horrific scene of her son’s death. It makes sense that Lazarus could have taken Mary to his home “that hour”, since he lived only a mile or two away in Bethany. Although John remained in Jerusalem for years following Jesus’ death, there is no indication that he had a home in or near Jerusalem at this point.

The linen wrappings at Jesus’ empty tomb caused the disciple whom Jesus loved to believe. Like Lazarus himself, the linen wrappings are only part of the narrative of the Fourth Gospel. In 20:1-8 we read that after Mary Magdalene told Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved about the empty tomb of Jesus, they both ran to see it. The disciple whom Jesus loved arrived first, but stopped and did not enter the tomb immediately. Was he reminded of his own experience, having himself recently awoken in the darkness of a tomb? Peter arrived shortly and entered the tomb first, seeing the graveclothes of Jesus with the facecloth separated by itself. When the other disciple saw it, he believed! Why did Jesus separate out the facecloth from the rest of the linen wrappings? And why did that disciple believe? Look back at the raising of Lazarus in 11:43-44. “[Jesus] cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth.’ The man who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” The linen wrappings and the facecloth would have meant more to Lazarus than anyone. Imagine Lazarus seeing these, remembering what it was like to wake up wrapped in burial clothes with his face covered, and knowing that Jesus, like himself, was alive again.

Lazarus makes sense of Peter’s question, “Lord, and what about this man?” In 21:18-23, after Jesus gives Peter the chance to affirm his love to him three times, Jesus tells Peter about “what kind of death he would glorify God”. Peter turns around, looks at the disciple whom Jesus loved, and asks, “Lord, and what about this man?” Jesus responds, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” This is perplexing if you believe John to be the disciple here, and you can only speculate as to why Peter might have asked this and why Jesus responds the way he does. But if Lazarus is the disciple there isn’t any need to speculate about why. Lazarus died and was raised, so will he die again or will he live forever? The writer clarifies that Jesus’ response doesn’t mean he won’t die, though many in his day thought Jesus’ words indicated he would not. The point Jesus seems to be making to Peter is that such a question is irrelevant. Peter will die for following Jesus, as so many Christians did and continue to do. The point Jesus is making is that rather than getting too caught up in what eternal life looks like (or perhaps in questions like who actually wrote the Fourth Gospel), we ought to focus on how we are each individually called to follow Jesus ourselves, in life and in death.

Image: Gozzoli, Benozzo. The Raising of Lazarus. Mid 1490s. National Gallery of Art. images.nga.gov.

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