Arguments for Lazarus
Most competing theories about the Beloved Disciple are based largely on patristic or gnostic sources; however, one theory—which names Lazarus—claims to be based on a natural reading of the Gospel of John. Three variations of this theory are discussed below: the arguments of Filson, Eller, and Witherington.. But first, we need to note that all variations of this theory have two fatal flaws:
Beyond this, the individual cases must be discussed separately.
Filson’s case for Lazarus
An article by F. V. Filson presents a seemingly strong case to show that Lazarus was the Beloved Disciple, based on an exegesis not of the complete BD passages, but simply the phrase “disciple whom Jesus loved.” Filson summarizes his most important argument as follows:
b. The beloved disciple was Lazarus. If the Gospel of John was written to be intelligible when read by itself, Lazarus would seem to be meant. He is the one man in the gospel whom Jesus is said to love. This love is emphasized in 11:3, 5, 11, 36. In 12:2 Lazarus shares a meal with Jesus. Then in 13:23 the beloved disciple is said to share a meal with Jesus. The alert reader can hardly avoid identifying him with Lazarus unless he knows another answer from some other source.
Filson then sums up his conclusion in the following words: “Internal evidence thus points to Lazarus as the beloved disciple. External evidence points rather to John the son of Zebedee. It is difficult to reconcile the two lines of evidence.” Filson doesn’t tell us here what external evidence he has in mind, but presumably he includes both patristic and synoptic evidence, at least. His admission that both of these are against his thesis must be seen as very damaging. Nevertheless, we need to determine the force of his arguments.
In the first passage, Filson cites four references in which Jesus’ love for Lazarus is allegedly emphasized: 11:3, 5, 11 and 36. Of these 11:36 seems at first to offer the strongest support for Filson’s thesis. Here Jesus is at the tomb of Lazarus, crying. The Judeans see the strength of Jesus’ emotion and say, “See how much he loved him!” But the reader should immediately see an anomaly here: Repeatedly, the author has shown proof of the Judeans’ failure to understand. Is he now trying to soften the effect of these examples by showing us one time when they were perceptive?
The immediate context shows that this is not the case; the Judeans continue to misunderstand. The first instance is in 11:31, where Mary leaves to meet Jesus but the Judeans assume she is going to the tomb. The last instance is in v. 37, where some Judeans ask whether one who had healed the blind could not have kept Lazarus from dying; they fail to understand that Jesus deliberately delayed his coming until Lazarus was dead, so that God’s power could be demonstrated (11:4-6, 15). Within this same brief passage (11:33-36), they fail to notice the contrast between the weeping of Mary and that of Jesus: When Mary weeps, the verb is klaw which refers to the loud wailing which was traditional when mourning the recent death of a loved one. In contrast, the word used when Jesus weeps is dakruw, which means to cry silently.
In this context, then, we read that Jesus saw Mary and the Judeans weeping, and he ‘was deeply moved (enebrimeesato) in spirit and was troubled’ (NASB). In various contexts, enebrimeesato (embrimaomai) is translated murmured against or strictly warned (against something); it is derived from brimaomai, meaning to snort. Despite varying shades of meaning, the word generally has negative connotations, indicating displeasure with someone's actions. In 11:33, where Jesus first uses this word, it is in response to the loud wailing of Mary and the Judeans. Clearly it is not the death of Lazarus which elicits such a response from Jesus, because he sees this event as the means of glorifying God; he could have prevented it but chose instead to delay his coming until Lazarus was dead. What evokes the expression of displeasure, causing Jesus to snort, is the weeping not only of the Judeans, who always misunderstand, but even his good friend Mary, who should have known better. Then, when Jesus sheds tears over Mary’s unnecessary pain, the Judeans misunderstand again: Some of them ask whether Jesus had been unable to save such a dear friend from death. This leads Jesus to show again how appalled he is at their lack of understanding (11:38).
In this passage, then, it is primarily the unbelieving Judeans who conclude that Lazarus was an especially intimate friend of Jesus. Mary also misunderstands, so her description of her brother as one whom Jesus loves does not advance Filson’s case. None of the other references cited by Filson support his view. In 11:3, Jesus speaks of Lazarus only as “our friend” (11:11). The author finds it necessary to tell which Lazarus he is talking about; even though no gospel mentions any other Lazarus, this one is identified as the brother of Mary. This gospel tells us only that Jesus loved “Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (11:5). In contrast with this are Jesus’ words to his disciples in 15:9: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” In 13:1, the author tells us that Jesus “loved his own which were in the world and ... loved them unto the end.” In 12:34 and 15:12 Jesus’ love for his disciples is the model which they are to emulate. Nothing in these chapters suggests that Jesus loved Lazarus as much as he loved his chosen Twelve or more than he loved Mary and Martha.
Less than two months later, according to Acts, the disciples met to elect a replacement for Judas. If Lazarus had been the extraordinary witness called “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” he would certainly have been nominated. The Beloved Disciple was the one personally chosen by Jesus to be his adopted brother, as well as being a primary witness to the death of Jesus, the one who first witnessed the empty tomb, who first recognized the risen Lord on the shore after the resurrection, the one whom the Fourth Gospel cites as a trustworthy witness. All of this evidence makes it virtually certain that the BD would be nominated as a replacement for Judas, unless he was already one of the Twelve. The likelihood would have been even greater if that disciple had been Lazarus, who had been personally resurrected by Jesus.
Eller’s case for Lazarus
As Eller builds his case for Lazarus as the Beloved Disciple, he argues that the term “disciples” is used differently in the Synoptic Gospels than in the Fourth Gospel. He states that “the Synoptics use the term ‘disciples’ almost exclusively in reference to the Twelve,” but “the Fourth Gospel uses the term quite differently¾much more flexibly, openly, and inclusively.” Building on this distinction, he quotes the statement of Jesus’ brothers in 7:3 (“Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples may see the works you are doing”) as near proof of “a second, Jerusalem-based disciple group.”
Eller is certainly correct in noting that the English word disciple doesn’t always have the same meaning in the New Testament. This word is the usual translation of the Greek mathetes (pl. mathetai). According to Kittel, this is the term commonly used for an apprentice who is under the tutelage of a didaskalos (teacher). In a broader sense, however, it could be used of any student who has a teacher, whether the subject of the instruction is technical or academic information. In this sense it could be applied to all who came to Jesus or John for baptism (John 4:1, 2), or in fact to any who came to Jesus in hopes of learning a few new things.
After Jesus’ “hard saying,” however, we read that “many of his disciples turned back and walked with him no more” (6:66). Following this point in the Fourth Gospel, the word mathetes begins to take on a more restricted meaning. In chapter 8, Jesus speaks at some length to a group of Judeans, and some of them believe him. But their belief does not make them mathetai; instead Jesus tells them, “If you abide in my word, then are you my disciples indeed” (8:31). This statement adds a requirement for all who would be Jesus’ disciples, and as happened previously, Jesus’ “hard sayings” dissuaded many Judeans from following him.
Our study is complicated, however, by the fact that Jesus presumably spoke Aramaic, whereas this Gospel gives us a Greek translation or paraphrase. Nevertheless, the result is that in the Gospel of John the word mathetes begins to take on a new shade of meaning. After 6:66, a mathetes of Jesus is one who abides in his word, not simply a casual learner. At this same point (6:67-71) John refers for the first time to the Twelve as a group specifically chosen by Jesus. Thereafter, references to Jesus’ mathetai, plural, seem to refer almost always to members of the Twelve. This is especially evident in 21:14, which refers to a third appearance of the resurrected Lord to “his disciples.” Prior to this point in the Gospel, Jesus has appeared to all or some of the Twelve on two occasions, and to Mary Magdalene once. The appearance to Mary Magdalene (20:11-18) is therefore not counted as one of the appearances to “his disciples,” although she was a very close follower of Jesus.
There were fundamental differences between the Twelve and Jesus’ other followers. The Twelve had been explicitly called by Jesus to be with him, and eventually to judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt 19:28, Luke 22:30). Those who were chosen were not only to abide in his word but to “be with him… that he might send them to preach and to have authority to heal diseases and cast out demons” (Mark 3:14). They would be commissioned by Jesus to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19).
In the NT, therefore, mathetes came to have a meaning which is close to that of the Hebrew talmid (pl. talmidim). Talmid, like Greek mathetes, was the usual term for an apprentice but could be used for any student, including a rabbi’s student. A rabbi’s advanced students were called talmidei hakhamim, or pupils of the wise, to distinguish them from beginning students, who were called simply talmidim. Both the singular and plural forms of talmid hakham were terms of great respect, and with the respect came great responsibilities: Such a student was to live with the rabbi, attending closely to his words and endeavoring to become in every way like his master. These points of similarity led Kittel to note a “terminological kinship” between mathetes and talmid. More specifically, the Twelve were in some respects like a rabbi’s talmidei hakhamim.
Nevertheless, there were some differences between the Twelve and a rabbi’s talmidei hakhamim. The Twelve, as we noted, did not choose to be part of the group; Jesus chose them (6:70). Also, the talmidei hakhamim were expected to memorize their rabbi’s actual words, but this does not seem to have been a requirement for the Twelve; when necessary, the Holy Spirit would recall to their minds the actual words of Jesus (14:26). The Twelve were to concentrate on transformation rather than memorization.
For the Twelve, there would probably be an additional need: to pass on Jesus’ toldoth, roughly translated story or history; it also includes the idea of genealogy. In Genesis, the most important figures in Jewish history each had such a toldoth, and as the promised Messiah Jesus was the central figure in all of Jewish history. His disciples would therefore be responsible for passing on both his teachings and his toldoth, or as we might say, his words and his history. These may have been separate documents or traditions prior to the writing of the Gospel of Mark. But not until the writing of Matthew (for a predominantly Jewish audience) was Jesus’ genealogical toldoth added.
These requirements applied to all of the Twelve, but according to synoptic tradition, three disciples were often separated by Jesus from the others for more intimate conversations: Peter, James and John. To these three Jesus gave additional training for their future roles, suggesting that these were the men he especially relied on for the propagation of the good news. Peter, as the leader of the Twelve, would have the greatest responsibility of all. If tradition is correct, he fulfilled this requirement in part by passing on to Mark the information which formed the basis for the second Gospel.
We noted earlier that late in Jesus’ ministry, James and John were rivals of Peter, and James appears to have separated himself from Peter and John. If this is correct, James must have developed his own group of followers, who would have needed his version of the words and deeds of Jesus. But Acts tells us that after the Resurrection, Jesus told his disciples to simply wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit. During this time of waiting, James probably would have jotted down his recollection, possibly organizing a few of them into sermons that he would preach. John 21:24 seems to indicate that he committed these individual teachings to writing, which later gave John the basis for his Gospel.
Implications of the above for Eller’s arguments
Eller noted that in the Synoptics, the term disciples is generally used in a narrow sense, in reference to the Twelve, but he noted a more general use of the term in the Fourth Gospel. Actually, we have seen both usages in the Fourth Gospel, because it applied the term more narrowly after many disciples, in the broad sense, turned away. It was shortly after this that Jesus appointed his Twelve, who closely paralleled the talmidae hakhamim of other rabbis. This reminds us again that Jesus presumably did not preach in Greek, and that we must be sensitive to the Hebraisms which may underlie our Greek New Testament.
We should also remember that the number twelve is highly significant. Each of the Synoptics quotes Jesus as saying the Twelve are appointed to sit on the thrones of the twelve tribes of Israel. This seems to leave no room for other talmidae hakhamim who served the same function as the Twelve.
This leads us to Eller’s statement about Jesus’ brothers (John 7:3), which we quoted in part earlier. Eller’s complete statement is as follows:
(iii) 7:3: This reference will be of utmost importance regarding the Beloved Disciple himself. Jesus’ brothers suggest to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples may see the works you are doing.” There is a strong implication that¾apart from the Galilean Twelve¾there are disciples in Jerusalem who would like the Master to do more of his work among them. The existence of a second, Jerusalem-based disciple group will be fundamental to our understanding of the Fourth Gospel¾and here we are as much as told that such a group did indeed exist.
But Eller’s statement seems to ignore the context. Here Jesus’ brothers don’t believe in him, and he has just fled from Judea to Galilee to escape the authorities who are trying to kill him. In this context, the brothers’ mocking statement seems to imply, ‘If you want your disciples to believe in your miracles, do them back in Judea, where the authorities want to kill you.’ The statement is prompted not by a group of disciples in Judea, but by the unbelieving authorities there.
Eller then summarizes in the following words:
Obviously, then, the Beloved Disciple has no intention of denying the existence of the Galilean Twelve. He does, however, play down the centrality and exclusivity of that group and work at making “disciples of Jesus" more inclusive both in numbers and in geographical spread.
But in this essay we have seen that the competition was not between the Twelve and a rival group; it was between two individuals within the Twelve, for the leadership of that group. These two individuals, apparently, were Peter and James. The relationship between these two is explained in the final episode in the Fourth Gospel. Here Jesus repeatedly commands Peter, “Tend my lambs,” “shepherd my sheep,” “tend my sheep.” The author who recorded these statements doesn’t downplay the responsibility the Lord gave to Peter. But the further conversation makes it clear that the Lord’s plans for the Beloved Disciple are none of Peter’s business. The purpose of the Beloved Disciple passages, then, is to show that he is fully qualified (and authorized by the Lord) to lead his own ministry, independently of Peter, while he remains one of the Twelve.
Witherington’s case for Lazarus as the Beloved Disciple
In a blog dated January, 2007, Ben Witherington presented an intriguing argument identifying Lazarus as the Beloved Disciple, based largely on circumstantial evidence. Although we should rely first on the direct evidence, circumstantial evidence can be very powerful—provided we know all the relevant circumstances. But if any of the presumed circumstances can be falsified, such evidence quickly loses all validity.
This issue becomes critical in evaluating what is arguably Witherington’s strongest argument:
Why is the final editor of this material in such angst about denying that Jesus predicted that the Beloved Disciple would live until Jesus returned? Is it because there had been a tradition in the BD’s church that he would, and if so, what generated such a tradition? Not, apparently the BD himself. But now he has passed away and this has caused anxiety among the faithful about what was the case with the BD and what Jesus had actually said about his future in A.D. 30. I would suggest that no solution better explains all the interesting factors in play here than the suggestion that the Beloved Disciple was someone that Jesus had raised from the dead, and so quite naturally there arose a belief that surely he would not die again, before Jesus returned (emphasis added).
If this solution is correct, it does indeed provide us with important information about “all the factors in play here.” But contrarily, I would suggest first that John 21:20-23 explicitly tells us how the false rumor started. Need we look for a different explanation, based on circumstantial evidence? As for the suggestion that “no solution better explains” these factors, I would say that only the identification of James as the BD explains why neither son of Zebedee is named, or why 21:3 leaves two of Jesus’ disciples unnamed, or why the BD is portrayed more favorably than Peter. It also explains the “angst” which Witherington finds resulting from the BD’s death. Furthermore, as we noted earlier, the BD would certainly have been chosen as the thirteenth apostle, unless he was already one of the Twelve.
"Lazarus Come Forth"
A Web site at LazarusComeForth.com and an accomnanying book by J. Phillips present an interesting case for Lazarus as "the disciple whom Jesus loved." The core argument is similar to Filson's statement: "The Beloved Disciple was Lazarus. If the Gospel of John was written to be intelligible by itself Lazarus would seem to be meant. He is the one man in the gospel whom Jesus is said to love." The above refutation of this argument would apply equally to the LazarusComeForth.com site.
But for readers of the King James Bible, the most interesting and persuasive of Phillips' arguments may be in the appendix to the latest edition of the book (The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved, BBSM, 2011). Briefly, Phillips argues in this appendix that the BD "believed" as soon as he saw the empty tomb and the grave clothes (Jn 20:8), in contrast to the Eleven whom Jesus rebuked for their unbelief later in the day (Mk. 16:14). This is cited as proof that "the other disciple" was not one of the Eleven.
The most serious problem with this argument is that the closing verses of Mark, which Phillips cites, are not present in the two oldest manuscripts of Mark, and the argument cannot be verfied from either Matthew or Luke.
A more recent version of the LazarusComeForth Web site suggests that the absence of Lazarus' name from the first three Gospels can best be explained by the assumption that the Beloved Disciple was Lazarus. A simpler assumption would be that only James joined Thomas in accompanying Jesus to the tomb, so that of the Gospel writers, only James was present for this event. This would then be another example of James' one-upmanship relative to Peter. James would have relished another opportunity to outdo his rival.
The total lack of any reference to Lazarus - not only in John 1-10, but in the entire New Testament - clearly demonstrates that he was not among the most important disciples, either before or after his resurrection. The real mystery is why neither son of Zebedee is named in the Fourth Gospel, even though 21:2 implies that both were present; and the speculation that Lazarus was the Beloved Disciple offers no adequate solution.
 F. V. Filson, “Beloved Disciple” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible.
 The fourth Gospel speaks of ‘the Judeans’ throughout. The first such place is in 1:19, where they send priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask John the Baptist who he was. It is clear from this that ‘the Judeans’ are religious authorities in Jerusalem. Later in the chapter, we are told that those who were sent were ‘from the Pharisees’ (1:24). These people send others to make the inquiry, rather than talk to John themselves. In 2:18-21 they misunderstand his words about raising the temple in three days. In 5:15-18 they seek to kill Jesus because they fail to understand, despite the testimony of John the Baptist (5:33) and Moses (5:46), that God was Jesus’ father. In 6:33-59 they murmur among themselves, not understanding Jesus’ statement that he is the bread of life which came down from heaven. In 7:15 they fail to understand where Jesus got his learning. In 7:34, 5 they fail to understand his statement that ‘where I go you cannot come.’ In 7:51 Nicodemus rebukes them for condemning Jesus without hearing him or knowing what he is doing. In 8:22 they still misunderstand his words about going where they cannot come. In 8:56, 7 they misunderstand Jesus’ statement that Abraham had seen his day. In 9:18 they refuse to believe that Jesus healed the blind man, and subsequently they fail to believe even the testimony of the man himself or his parents; the man who was healed then rebukes them for their refusal to listen. In 10:24-26 Jesus rebukes them for again asking a question which he had answered repeatedly.
 It could be argued, on the contrary, that the Beloved Disciple may have been dead when Judas’ successor was chosen, but in that case, there would have been no rumor that this disciple would not die. There would also have been no time for him to write the accounts which would later become the Fourth Gospel.
 It could be argued, of course, that Lazarus may not have been one who ‘accompanied us … beginning with the baptism of John’ (Acts 1:21, 22), making him unqualified. But who then is the unnamed disciple of John 1:38-40? We have simply exchanged one mystery for another.
 Eller, Vernard, The Beloved Disciple: HisName, His Story, His Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983) 25.
 Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament trans. by G. W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967) vol. 4, p. 416.
 The Gospels’ use of the term rabbi has been cited as evidence of a late date, because there is no evidence of such usage prior to Jesus’ ministry. However, as the article ‘Rabbi, Rabbinate’ in Encyclopedia Judaica notes, ‘The passage in the New Testament (Matt. 23:7) in which the Scribes and Pharisees are criticized because they “love … to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi” probably reflects the fact of its recent introduction.’ It thus seems impossible to exclude the possibility that Matt:23:7 reflects a genuine saying of Jesus. It also appears impossible to determine precisely when talmid hakham was first used in a technical sense in reference to close followers of the Sages.
 ‘Talmid’ in Encyclopedia Judaica (New York: Macmillan, 1971).
 Kittel, TDNTW vol. 4, 442.
 Only the plural form of the word appears in the Bible. In Gen. 2:4, 5:1, and 6:9, for example, the AV translates the word generations, the NIV says account, and the NASB reads repectively account, book, and record.
 Eller, Vernard, The Beloved Disciple—His Name, His Story, His Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) 25.
 Witherington, Ben, “Was Lazarus the Beloved Disciple?” http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2007/01/was-lazarus-beloved-disciple.htmlu