The author of this book aims at interpreting the personality of the appellation “the disciple whom Jesus loved” with a particular study on the Fourth Gospel while extending the research to the 2nd-4th centuries studies. The question is who was the disciple whom Jesus loved? He begins with some of the interpretations that have been proffered to this personality right from the second century. The names that have been identified with this personality include John, the son of Zebedee; John the Presbyter; John the apostle. These names have also been linked to the author of the Fourth Gospel. Other names include the anonymous disciple (1:37-40), Philip, the other disciple (18:15-16), Thomas and Lazarus. The author argues that these identifications of names are not tenable and in fact negative (p. 16).
The book is divided into five parts, namely, 1) the author of the Gospel from 2nd-4th centuries: here, Joseph Thông investigates four different appellations: John, the disciple whom Jesus loved; John, one of the disciples; John the Presbyter, and John the Priest. 2) The sons of Zebedee and the anonymous disciples in the Fourth Gospel: here, he tries to examine the personality of the apostle John in the synoptics, that of the disciple whom Jesus loved and the anonymous disciples in the Fourth Gospel. He maintains that the term “beloved disciple” is not appropriate because it does not conform to the text of the Gospel rather the appropriate text reads “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” 3) In the third part, he examines some propositions that identify some of the Twelve (John, Andrew, Nathanael – Bartholomew) and some other New Testament figures (Lazarus, John Mark, the rich young man) with the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” He also goes further to identify other hypotheses that relate some functions (such as the Palestinian, Jerusalem Priest, the Sadducee), literary figure (like the figure of Benjamin, Joseph, the son of Jacob) and a literary fictive personality to the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” 4) The disciple whom Jesus loved in John’s Gospel: he points out some passages where this disciple is mentioned and examines his role in relation to that of Jesus and the other disciples. 5) The formation of the Fourth Gospel and the processus of rereading and intertextuality.
The author holds that the “disciple whom Jesus loved” becomes a figure for all the disciples both the first generation and the future ones. That is, the love of Jesus for this disciple is a symbol of Jesus’ love and friendship for all the believers.
In his investigation of the documents from the 2nd-4th centuries on John and the author of the Fourth Gospel (Papyrus P52, P66 and P75: 2nd-3rd centuries; Codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus: 4th century), Joseph Thông identifies some of the submissions of some church Fathers as regards the subject matter. He concludes that there are several traditions with legendary elements in their submissions concerning the author of the Fourth Gospel and the “disciple whom Jesus loved”; and that the question on the identity of this disciple is not clear. He submits, therefore, that one cannot hold to the authors of the 2nd-4th centuries to clearly identify the author of the Fourth Gospel with the apostle John, John the son of Zebedee and the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” On the contrary, it could be argued that the documents and their authors in those centuries used these names with only one personality without a difference.
Joseph Thông rejects the hypothesis that the “disciple whom Jesus loved” is the apostle John because the latter had some reproaches from Jesus and was confronted with human weakness; while the former was always responding appropriately to Jesus and was an example par excellence. His characteristics are fidelity, intimacy with Jesus, faith, promptitude to know his master and authority of his witness. “Il n’y a aucun malentendu et aucune incompréhension entre Jésus et le disciple qu’il aimait. Ce n’est pas le cas de l’apôtre Jean dans les synoptiques” (p. 60). This reason does not appear strong and sufficient to dismiss the proposition that the apostle John could have been the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” In fact, that the apostle John was reproached by Jesus at certain times for lack of understanding or that he was corrected could show the love that Jesus had for him. If really this disciple whom Jesus loved is not the apostle John, and he is accorded so much importance and intimacy with Jesus more than the Twelve and the other disciples (as maintained by Joseph Thông), one might have expected him to be at the transfiguration and Gethsemane – these are the events which the author of this book employs to buttress his argument (cf. p. 59).
It could also be said that the events employed to make comparison in the attitudes between the apostle John and the “disciple whom Jesus loved” in the synoptics and the Fourth Gospel by Joseph Thông are not the same. The actions are not the same, so equal or same reactions should not also be expected. The experience of the disciples with Jesus was a gradual discovery of knowledge and the mystery of Christ. So, at a point in time, a disciple may not understand a certain event but at later time come to understand, and in fact that is what happened in the development of the Christian faith.
The author believes that the fact that the “disciple whom Jesus loved” is sometimes associated with Peter in the Fourth Gospel (13:23-26; 20:3-10; 21:1-23) and Peter with the apostle John often in the synoptics, is not enough reason to identify the “disciple whom Jesus loved” with John the apostle. This claim is left for this author to expatiate; for it appears not convincingly demonstrated in the book.
He tries to link possibly the “disciple whom Jesus loved” to one of the two other disciples mentioned in 21:2 and avoids linking him to one of the two sons of Zebedee. In this passage, the appellation “sons of Zebedee” was mentioned in addition to the other disciples mentioned by their names. There is no specific mention of the “disciple whom Jesus loved” in the list (v. 2). Hence, it could also be argued that this disciple whom Jesus loved is one of the sons of Zebedee, since within the same event (v. 7) the “disciple whom Jesus loved” is mentioned, and refers logically to one of those listed in the previous verse.
On the identity of the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” Joseph Thông submits that it is better to maintain his anonymity and see in him a historical personality with a symbolic figure rather than giving him any of the names of the Twelve or the known disciples.
On the formation of the Fourth Gospel (the last chapter of the book), he distinguishes three personalities that were involved at each stage of formation, namely, 1) the disciple whom Jesus loved who is also the head of the Johannine school, an eyewitness to the truth of the death and the resurrection of Jesus and who put to writing his witness; 2) the evangelist who wrote the first conclusion in 20:30-31; and 3) the redactor who composed chapter 21 and gave the Gospel its final form. This arrangement and the personalities involved seem plausible.
The book challenges the old and traditional view that the author of the Fourth Gospel is John the apostle and that he is also the disciple whom Jesus loved. It is an interesting input and the research awakens one’s views and belief to settle for what previous authors on this subject have come up with as regards this discussion. The book is valuable for lovers of facts and those who seek for what the text actually says.