Was Jesus in a Sexual Relationship
with the Beloved Disciple?
by Robert A. J. Gagnon, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of New Testament, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary,
Pittsburgh, PA 15206-2596
Feb. 10, 2008
Some readers who espouse a homosexualist ideology go to such an extreme
that they cite Jesus’ relationship with the “beloved disciple” as an
example of a loving homosexual bond.
I haven’t previously dealt with the issue in any detail because I have
always regarded the thesis as so far-fetched, even for homosexualist
ideology, as to warrant little or no response. Hence in my first book,
The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics, I
merely allude to the admission of Martti Nissinen, a Finnish Old
Testament scholar who has written the best (though still flawed)
homosexualist book on Scripture and homosexuality that Jesus did not
engage in homoerotic behavior.
According to Nissinen,
Clearly . . . the favorite disciple shows special
status. . . . Nevertheless, the homoerotic or pederastic dimension of
their relationship could be argued only in a strained way from very
limited material. . . . The custom of a student resting against his
teacher’s chest manifests cultural conventions rather than
homoeroticism. . . . Even where the teacher and the student are of
different sexes, an erotic relationship is hardly at stake.
Given such an admission I felt no need to comment further. Recently,
however, a scholar friend of mine asked for my thoughts on this so I
decided to write something up. Here are seven strong reasons why Jesus
could not have been in a sexual relationship with the beloved disciple.
No mention of a sexual relationship in the Gospel of John.
At no time does the Gospel of John mention that Jesus is in a sexual
relationship with the beloved disciple. References to the disciple “whom
Jesus loved” are limited to five stories or pericopes from the last half
of John’s Gospel: at the Last Supper (13:23-25); at the foot of the
cross alongside the three Mary’s (19:25-27); at the empty tomb with
Peter (20:2-10); in the boat with the other disciples on the Sea of
Galilee after Jesus’ death (21:7); and following behind Peter and the
resurrected Jesus at the shore of the Sea of Galilee (21:20-23). This
same disciple is then identified as “the disciple who
testifies concerning these things and the one who wrote these things,
and we know that his testimony is true” (21:24). The following is the
grand total of what is said of the beloved disciple in John:
disciple whom Jesus loved.
He is designated in John’s Gospel not by a name but by
the relative clause ”the disciple whom Jesus loved” (13:23; 19:26; 20:2;
21:7, 20). The verb agapaō (ēgapa) is used in all
occurrences but 20:2 where phileō (ephilei) is used.
at Jesus’ chest in the Last Supper.
At the Last Supper he “was reclining
[lit. ‘lying up or back,’ anakeimenos] on the chest [en tōi
kolpōi] of Jesus” (13:23; cf. 13:25: “so falling [i.e. leaning]
back [anapeson] on the chest [epi to stethos] of
Jesus”; 21:20: “he reclined [anepesen]at the supper on his
chest [epi to stethos]”). Peter beckoned to this
disciple to ask Jesus who his betrayer was.
at the foot of the cross where Jesus declares Mary to be his mother and
him her son. He
stood with the three Mary’s (Jesus’ mother, his mother’s sister, and
Mary Magdalene) by the cross, where Jesus told his mother “Woman, see,
your son!” and the beloved disciple “See, your mother!” “And from that
hour/time, the disciple took her into his own things [i.e. home, family
person to reach the empty tomb and the first to believe.
He was the second person,
after Mary Magdalene, to reach the empty tomb and look in, outrunning
Peter to the tomb, and the first one to have “believed,” namely, that
Jesus’ body had not been stolen but that something heavenly had occurred
(20:2-10). The Fourth Evangelist’s comment, “for they [i.e. the beloved
disciple and Jesus] did not yet know the scripture that he must rise
from the dead” (10:9), is ambiguous. It suggests either that the belief
of the beloved disciple was in place but only in nascent form (something
miraculous had happened but precisely what he did not yet know) or that
the beloved disciple “believed” that Jesus as the man from heaven had
been raised to return to the Father, in spite of not knowing the
scriptural predictions of the Messiah’s resurrection. At any rate the
beloved disciple was poised for his next breakthrough.
first to recognize the resurrected Lord on the shore of the Sea of
beloved disciple was the first to recognize that the man who stood on
the beach and told them to cast their net into the Sea of Galilee (upon
which the disciples caught an enormous number of fish) was the
resurrected Lord (21:7).
one about whom a rumor spread that he would not die before Jesus’
noticed that the beloved disciple was following him and Jesus after
Jesus had thrice asked Peter if he loved him, thrice commanded him “Feed
my sheep,” and predicted Peter’s martyrdom. Peter asked Jesus about the
duties and fate of the beloved disciple and Jesus responded: “If I want
him to remain until I come [back from heaven], what (is that) to you?
You, follow me!” The narrator adds that though a rumour then spread
among “the brothers” that that disciple would not die before Jesus’
return Jesus did not actually say that he would not die but only, in
effect, the beloved disciple’s fate was none of Peter’s business. The
implication of the narrator’s comment, of course, is that by the time
that ch. 21 was written the beloved disciple had already died.
chief authority behind the message of John’s Gospel.
The beloved disciple is the chief
source and at some level the writer of “these things,” presumably the
Gospel as a whole since “these things” is contrasted with the “many
other things which Jesus did” that were not recorded in the Gospel of
John (21:24-25). Since the beloved disciple is referred to in the third
person, appears by mention only from the Last Supper on, and obviously
did not write everything in the Fourth Gospel (e.g., the denial that
Jesus had assured the beloved disciple of remaining alive until Jesus’
return), scholars generally distinguish between the beloved disciple and
the Fourth Evangelist (if even they view the beloved disciple as a real
figure in history).
None of these passages contain any reference to sexual activity between
Jesus and the beloved disciple.
The verbs agapaō and
and their cognates nowhere in John’s Gospel have a sexual connotation.
The verb used to denote a sexual relationship between two males in the
Greco-Roman milieu is eraō
and its cognates, where the active “lover” is an
erastēs and the more
passive/receptive “beloved” is an erōmenos.
If the Fourth Evangelist had wanted his readers to know that Jesus was
in a sexual relationship with this disciple he would have chosen the
appropriate words for sexual love between males.
With regard to
agapaō and cognates
in John’s Gospel we read of Jesus’ sacrificial love for all his
disciples (13:1, 34; 15:9, 12-13; defined as those who keep his
commandments or word: 14:21, 23; 15:10); Jesus’ love for Martha, Mary,
and Lazarus (11:5); Jesus’ love for his heavenly Father (14:31); God’s
love for the world (3:16) or for Jesus’ followers (14:21, 23; 17:23
26); God’s love as Father for his Son (3:35; 15:9; 17:23-24, 26; because
he lays down his life: 10:17; because he has kept his Father’s
commandments: 15:10); the love that Jesus commands people to have for
him which for unbelievers is manifested in believing in him (8:42; cf.
love for God in 5:42) and for believers is manifested in keeping his
commandments or word (14:15, 21, 23-24; or rejoicing that Jesus is
returning to the Father: 14:28), expressed especially in
their sacrificial love for “one another” (13:34-35; 15:12-13, 17) and,
as regards leaders, in “feeding Jesus’ sheep” (21:15-16); and people’s
tragic love of darkness or praise from other people (3:19; 12:43).
The fact that the verb
phileō, which refers
to friendship love, and the related noun
philos, “friend,” are used
interchangeably with agapaō
and cognates in John’s Gospel confirms the
non-erotic character of this love: Jesus’ love for Lazarus (11:3, 36;
called “our friend” [ho philos hēmon]
in Jesus’ conversation with his disciples in 11:11);
Jesus’ love for the beloved disciple (20:2); God’s love for Jesus’
followers (16:27); God’s love as Father for his Son (5:20); the love of
Jesus’ followers for Jesus (expressed in their “believing that [Jesus]
came from the Father”: 16:27; expressed in “feeding [Jesus’] sheep”:
21:15-17; called “friends” [philoi]
if they do what Jesus commands them: 15:13-15); the world’s love for its
own (15:19), and the tragic love some people have for their own life in
the world (12:25).
It is interesting that Mary and Martha tell Jesus about their brother
Lazarus’s serious illness in these terms: “Lord, see, the one whom you
is sick” (11:3). Two verses later we read that Jesus “loved (ēgapa)
Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” He loves all three but nevertheless
Lazarus can be referred to simply as “the one whom you love” (hon
phileis). This sounds a great deal like
the reference in 20:2 to the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (hon
ephilei ho Iēsous), which singles out a
specific disciple even though the broader context makes clear that Jesus
loves all his disciples (13:1, 34; 14:21-23; 15:9-13). If Jesus’ special
love for Lazarus is not understood in a sexual sense--otherwise, Jesus
would be having sex with more than one person, contrary to his own
teaching about monogamy in Mark 10 and Matthew 19--how can his special
love for one disciple be understood in a sexual sense? When “Jews” saw
how Jesus wept for Lazarus and said, “See, how he loved (ephilei),”
they obviously were not drawing the conclusion that Jesus was in a
sexual relationship with Lazarus. Rather, Jesus loved Lazarus as though
he (Lazarus) were his own brother. The same applies to the references to
the beloved disciple.
The fact, too, that the descriptor “the disciple whom Jesus loved” can
use for “loved” either ēgapa (13:23;
19:26; 21:7, 20) or ephilei (20:2)--i.e. either the verb
agapaō or phileō—also
confirms that friendship love, not sexual intercourse, is intended. To
be sure, erotic love is not necessarily exclusive of friendship love.
The point rather is that
phileō and its
cognates most basically refer to the affectionate regard of friends and
carry no inherent implication of sexual desire. So the basic meaning of
the verb is “love” in the sense of “regard with affection, treat
affectionately or kindly” as friends commonly do. As a substantive
participle, “those who love” (hoi philountes) someone are simply
that person’s “friends” (a formula found frequently in letters; cf. LSJ,
I.1). The nouns philos and
philia most commonly mean “friend” and “friendship” respectively.
Similarly, the verb agapaō
and the noun agapē in ancient Greek seldom refer to sexual love;
their original sense is that of non-sexual love (cf. LSJ).
disciple loved not for his sexual attractiveness but for his faith in
Jesus and love for fellow believers.
The usage of agapaō
throughout John’s Gospel explain why the beloved disciple was
specially “loved” by Jesus and what that love consisted of. For
the references above show that those whom Jesus loves and who “abide” in
his love are those who (a) believe in Jesus, specifically as the man
from heaven who becomes human in order to atone for human sin, and (b)
obey his commandments, especially the commandment to love one another.
This is confirmed by the portrayal of the beloved disciple as (a) the
one who is the first to have insight into the miracle behind the empty
tomb (“believed,” 20:8) and the first to recognize the resurrected Lord
on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (21:7), as well as (b) the one who,
unlike Peter, does not need to be told, “If you love me, feed my
sheep” (21:15-23). There is no hint anywhere in the Gospel of John that
Jesus is sexually attracted to the beauty of the beloved disciple, as is
often the case in Greco-Roman discussions, even philosophical
discussions, of man-male love. The beloved disciple is specially loved
because is a model of the kind of disciple that Jesus loves. This is
nothing sexual about this. It is the love of a friend for a friend, as
Jesus’ words in 15:14-15 make clear: “You are my friends (philoi)
if you do what I am commanding you (to do). No longer do I call you
slaves, for the slave does not know what his master [or: lord] is doing.
But you I have called friends because all the things that I have heard
from my Father I have made known to you.”
4. Reclining on
the chest as an asexual place of intimacy. In ancient banqueting
practice there was nothing necessarily erotic about reclining on a couch
slightly to the side of, in front of, and parallel to the host such that
conversation required leaning the head back on the host’s chest. The
parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus has Lazarus reclining after
death on Abraham’s chest without any sexual connotation (Luke 16:22-23).
A text in Pliny’s Epistles refers to a senator named Veiento who
“was reclining [or: leaning back] on the chest” of the emperor Nerva,
again without any sexual connotation (4.22.4). The beloved disciple
occupies a position of intimacy for the asexual reasons specified above.
I wrote Dr. Katherine
Dunbabin, professor of classics at McMaster University (Hamilton,
Ontario) and author of The Roman Banquet: Images of Conviviality
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), and asked her whether the
paragraph above reflected her own understanding of the matter. She
responded (reproduced with permission):
I think the Pliny passage
shows incontrovertibly that there is no necessary sexual connotation
involved in a diner reclining “on the chest” of another; there is no
suggestion whatsoever that Fabricius Veiento had any sort of sexual
relationship with the emperor Nerva! What the passage does imply is
intimacy; here in the sense that Veiento (whose past history was
extremely shady) was being received as a favoured associate of the
emperor/host. It was not the position of honour, but at least in the
traditional Roman triclinium arrangement, it was one reserved for
members of the host's family or his close associates. It is true that,
if his wife was present, this was the position that she occupied (and
there is some discussion whether, for a woman, reclining on the same
couch with a man did imply sexual availability); but in an all-male
banquet, it would be occupied by an associate of the host. Thus in
Horace’s description of the dinner of Nasidienus (Sat.2.8), the host
occupies the lowest couch with two friends, giving up his regular
position at the top end of the couch to one of them to place him next to
the guest of honour, Maecenas, on the end of the middle couch. And in
fact, whenever there are two or more people reclining on the same couch,
it is inevitable that the one to the right will be reclining “on the
chest of” his neighbour -- obviously there cannot always be sexual
connotations. Quite how the writer of St John's gospel envisaged the
arrangement at the Last Supper, and where he imagined Jesus as lying, is
another question, and I am not sure of the answer. Hardly, I think, the
traditional Roman pattern of the late Republic and early empire that we
know of from Cicero or Horace, and anyway there are 13 guests to be
accommodated, not 9. But I don’t think that affects your basic question.
The impossibility of man-male sex in Jesus’ cultural context.
Nowhere in the gospel traditions is there any mention of sexual
attraction for males on Jesus part. In the context of early Judaism,
where homosexual practice of any sort would incur a capital sentence,
how likely is it that Jesus would have had sexual intercourse with a
male disciple and have done so without apparently raising an eyebrow
among any of his other disciples? Even Socrates is said to have
renounced for himself sexual intercourse with males and to have urged
his followers not to have such relations because such acts were
“contrary to nature” (cf. Plato, Charmides 155C-D; Symposium
216B-219A; Phaedrus 227D, 250D, 254A-256B; Laws
636B-D, 836C-837C, 838E-839A, 841D-E; Xenophon,
1.3.8-14; Symposium 4.24-28).
Socrates did this in spite of the fact that he, unlike Jesus, was noted
for having a strong sexual attraction for beautiful “boys” (i.e.
adolescent males and young men); moreover, in spite of the fact that he
operated in a cultural milieu that was considerably more permissive
about homosexual relations than first-century Palestine.
Everything else that we know about Jesus speaks against the notion
that he had intercourse with a male. There are at least
a dozen arguments that collectively demonstrate in
convincing fashion that the historical Jesus was not supportive of
Briefly, these include:
Jesus’ adoption of a back-to-creation
model for marriage (Mark 10:6-9; Matt 19:4-6) that predicated (a) the
‘twoness’ of the marital bond on the twoness of the sexes in Gen 1:27
(“male and female he made them”) and (b) the reunion of man and
woman into “one flesh” on a story that posits women’s creation from a
part of the one flesh of the ’adam (earthling, human) in Gen
2:21-24 (“for this reason a man . . . will be joined to his woman/wife
and the two will become one flesh”).
Jesus’ retention of the Law of Moses
even on relatively minor matters such as tithing, to say nothing of a
foundational law in sexual ethics; and his view of the Old Testament
as inviolable Scripture, which Scripture was absolutely opposed to
Jesus’ further intensification of the
Law’s sex-ethic in matters involving adultery of the heart and divorce
(Matt 5:27-32), suggesting a closing of remaining loopholes in the
Law’s sex-ethic rather than a loosening; and, in his saying about
cutting off body parts, warning that people could be thrown into hell
precisely for not repenting of violations of God’s sexual standards
The fact that the man who baptized
Jesus, John the Baptist, was beheaded for defending Levitical sex laws
in the case of the adult-incestuous marriage between Herod Antipas and
the wife of his half-brother Philip (Lev 18:16; 20:21), a woman who
was also the daughter of another half-brother (Mark 6:17-18; Matt
Early Judaism’s univocal opposition to
all homosexual practice.
The early church’s united opposition to
all homosexual practice. This completes the historical circle and
underscoring the absurdity of positing a Jesus favorable to homosexual
practice—a Jesus without analogue in his historical context, cut off
from his Scripture, cut off from the rest of early Judaism, cut from
the man who baptized him, and cut from the church that emerged from
Jesus’ saying about the defiling effect
of desires for various forms of sexual immoralities (Mark 7:21-23),
which distinguished matters of relative moral indifference such as
food laws from matters of moral significance such as the sexual
commands of his Bible and connected Jesus to the general view of what
constitutes the worst forms of porneia in early Judaism (i.e.
bestiality, same-sex intercourse, incest, adultery).
Jesus’ acceptance of the Decalogue
prohibition of adultery, which in its Decalogue context and its
subsequent interpretation in early Judaism as a rubric for the major
sex laws of the Old Testament presupposed a male-female prerequisite
for valid sexual bonds.
Jesus’ saying about Sodom which,
understood in the light of Second Temple interpretations of Sodom
(Matt 10:14-15 par. Luke 10:10-12), included an indictment of Sodom
for attempting to dishonor the integrity of the visitors’ masculinity
by treating them as if they were the sexual counterparts to males.
Jesus’ saying about not giving what is
“holy” to the “dogs” (Matt 7:6), an apparent allusion to Deuteronomic
law (23:17-18) and texts in 1-2 Kings that indict the qedeshim,
self-designated “holy ones” identified as “dogs” for their attempt to
erase their masculinity by serving as the passive-receptive partners
in man-male intercourse.
Jesus’ comparison of “eunuchs for the
kingdom of heaven” with “born eunuchs” (persons who are asexual and/or
homosexual), a comparison that presumes that “born eunuchs” are not
permitted sexual relationships outside a man-woman bond and that Jesus
himself is a “eunuch for God’s kingdom” who goes without sexual
intimacy (Matt 19:10-12).
The fact that Jesus developed a sex
ethic that had distinctive features not shared by the love commandment
(love for everyone does not translate into having sex with everyone),
reached out to tax collectors and sexual sinners while simultaneously
intensifying God’s sex-ethic, insisted that the adulterous woman stop
sinning lest something worse happen to her (i.e., loss of eternal
life; cf. John 8:3-11; 5:14), appropriated the context of the “love
your neighbor” command in Lev 19:17-18 by insisting on reproof as part
of a full-orbed view of love (Luke 17:3-4), and defined discipleship
to him as taking up one’s cross, denying oneself, and losing one’s
life (Mark 8:34-37).
In short, all the contextual evidence points in the direction of Jesus
being as opposed to homosexual practice as anyone else in early Judaism
or earliest Christianity. Thus the only thing that differentiates Jesus
from Paul—the latter speaking more directly to the issue of homosexual
practice in two of his letters—is that Jesus operated in a cultural
context where he could presume unanimous agreement on a male-female
prerequisite for sexual relations (addressing fellow Jews in
first-century Palestine) whereas Paul operated in a cultural context
where such a presumption could no longer be made (addressing Gentiles in
the Mediterranean basin).
7. The beloved
disciple as the symbol of the preeminence of the Johannine tradition.
The portrait of an unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved” functions as
support for the Johannine community’s claim to possessing the preeminent
witness to Jesus. The scenes where the beloved disciple outruns Peter
(literally and figuratively) are probably symbolic, at least in part, of
friendly tension in the author’s day with dominant Petrine Christianity.
The Johannine Jesus is a more thoroughgoing fusion of the historical
Jesus and risen Christ than one finds already at work in the “Petrine”
trajectory of Mark and Matthew. The image of the beloved disciple’s
closeness to Jesus is designed to convey the deeper existential truth of
the Johannine community’s more spiritualized portrait of Jesus. Had the
community out of which the Gospel of John arose wanted to present a
sexual relationship between Jesus and their own patron disciple, it
would have succeeded only in making themselves outcasts in relation to
the rest of Christendom.
In conclusion, there is no credible historical or literary basis for
contending that Jesus and the beloved disciple were entwined in some
homosexual relationship. Attempts to convert the relationship to such
only underscore the desperation on the part of some to find something,
anything, remotely helpful in Scripture to support a homosexualist
most notable example is: Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., The Man Jesus
Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament (Pilgrim
Press, 2003). Jennings is a theologian, not a biblical scholar, who
teaches at a small UCC seminary, Chicago Theological Seminary, that
is “in partnership with the Metropolitan Community Churches,” a
denomination for self-avowed homosexual persons.
The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics
(Nashville, Abingdon, 2001), 188 n. 2.
Homoeroticism in the Biblical World (Minneapolis: Fortress,
following is reproduced in slightly amended form from my online
article, “Did Jesus Approve of a Homosexual Couple in the Story of
the Centurion at Capernaum?” 8 pgs (Apr. 2007). Online:
http://robgagnon.net/articles/homosexCenturionStory.pdf. For a
fuller analysis of the witness of Jesus on homosexual practice, see:
The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon,
2001), 185-228; Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views
(Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 50-52, 68-74; “Why the Disagreement
over the Biblical Witness on Homosexual Practice? A Response to
David G. Myers and Letha Dawson Scanzoni, What God Has Joined
Together?” in Reformed Review 59 (2005): 56-62
For a critique of attempts to wring support for homosexual behavior
from Jesus’ interaction with a centurion see the “Centurion” article
mentioned above. On the eunuch text in Matt 19:10-12, which actually
supports the view that Jesus was opposed to man-male intercourse,
see “Does Jack Rogers’s New Book ‘Explode the Myths’ about the Bible
and Homosexuality and ‘Heal the Church?’: Installment 4,” 5-6
story of Jesus’ nighttime initiation of a young naked disciple in
the Secret Gospel of Mark is of no value, not just because
there is no mention of sexual activity but also because recent
studies have provided strong evidence that the entire document was a
hoax perpetrated by Morton Smith. Cf. Peter Jeffery,
The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled:
Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006); Stephen C. Carlson,
The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith's Invention of Secret Mark
(Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2005).