The Legend of the Beloved Disciple

Tom Thatcher
Cincinnati Bible Seminary
2700 Glenway Ave.
Cincinnati, Ohio 45204 (USA)

--All files contained on this and linked sites are held under copyright and are available exclusively for use under the terms established for the Johannine Literature discussion group. No portion of this material may be copied or used without the owner's consent. A more complete version of this paper will appear in the forthcoming volume Jesus in Johannine Tradition: New Directions (ed. Tom Thatcher and Robert Fortna; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000).--

 Most of us are acquainted with folk heros like Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and Pecos Bill.  American children are taught that Paul Bunyan was a giant man who traveled the northwest with his blue ox, Babe, felling trees with a single stroke of the ax.  John Henry was the "steel-drivin' man" who could lay railroad track faster than a steam engine.  The 1960s TV show about the legendary frontiersman Davy Crockett opens with a theme-song which dubs him "King of the Wild Frontier" and claims that he "killed him a bare when he was only three."

 All these characters are "trade legends," by which I mean, each of them personifies the values of a particular trade.  Trade legends can always do everything that the average worker would love to be able to do, but they do it superlatively.  Pecos Bill, the ultimate cowboy, rode a tornado up to heaven; John Henry can outdrive a steel-driving machine; Paul Bunyan can chop trees faster than a chainsaw-everything that workers in each of those trades most value came to be personified in this legendary person.  So consequently, stories about these figures transmit the values of those trades and legitimize those trades by showing their ultimate potential and worth.

 Now, legendary figures also sometimes develop within the guild of those who transmit oral traditions.  Most of my remarks on this point are going to be adapted from a recent article by John Miles Foley, whom many of you know as a legendary figure himself in the field of folkloristics.  Foley's observations are based on the research of Milman Parry and Albert Lord, who were the founders of the "oral-formulaic theory" for the production of traditional texts.  No doubt some of you have read Lord's book The Singer of Tales or at least seen reference to it.

 From 1933-1935, Parry and Lord were collecting data on the transmission of oral stories in the Stolac area of central Herzegovenia, which was then largely illiterate [MAPS].  Parry was seeking field evidence to support his thesis that the Iliad and Odyssey were oral, not literary, compositions.  So to do this, Parry and Lord recorded and interviewed as many guslars as they could find.  A guslar is a slavic folk-singer who performs traditional oral epics to the accompaniment of a guitar-type instrument called the gusle.

 What they would do generally would be to record an oral story and then interview the guslar and ask him a bunch of questions about his background, including where he got that particular story, i.e., what was his source.  On numerous occasions Parry was told that the story originated with a highly reputed oral bard, whose name and biographical details varied from one informant to the next but who always possessed almost superhuman abilities [COPY PACK #1].  For example, the great Guslar had lived to a very old age, but always died about two generations before the informant.  He was so good at telling stories that he had no other occupation, not unlike Kenneth Star.  And I should stress that this phenomenon was entirely unheard of among the people whom Parry interviewed, because all of them supported themselves mainly through other occupations.  The source could also do cool tricks like jumping 12 paces when he was 101 or singing for 6 hours straight, while the average guslar could perform for maybe half an hour.

 But more significant to my purposes, the informants generally claimed that this great oral storyteller of the past had an enormous repertoire of stories.  One of them told Parry that this guy had a different story for every day of the year.  So whatever name they gave him, this person was always "the ultimate source for the best songs they knew," even in cases where the storyteller would cite a more direct mentor as the immediate person who gave it to him.  For example, Parry asks a particular guslar, "Where did you learn this story?", and the guy might say that he heard it from his uncle, but the uncle learned it from the great singer.

 Now back to Foley, from these examples, and from other examples which he himself collected in Mongolia in 1997, Foley makes three observations about the legendary progenitors of oral traditions [COPY PACK #2]:

 #1) Just as oral stories and sayings vary within limits from one presentation to the next, the specific biographical details of their sources vary from one informant to the next.  So it looks like the sources of oral stories, like the stories themselves, are adapted to meet the needs of the particular local context.

 #2) The legendary source is represented as a real-life historical individual with a name and a hometown and all that stuff, but at the same time this person serves the broader function of designating the entire oral tradition.  So that by appealing to this person as a source, later storytellers add credibility to themselves and what they're doing.

  #3) And this is the logical extension of #1 and #2, because specific biographical details about the source person are inconsistent from one informant to the next, the primary value of these details is their representation of the things valued within the tradition.  In other words, once you see a trend in the way people think about their sources, the things the source person can do will reflect the skills which are valued within the poetic guild.

 Now Foley, who is interested in every kind of oral performance but ultimately is a classicist, argues from this that the name "Homer," as in the author of the Iliad, that that name "Homer" does not refer to a person but to the entire tradition of Greek epic poetry, and that this is why it is all but impossible to write a biography of Homer from the extant sources.  In fact, the extant sources don't even agree about how much stuff the guy actually wrote.  Note this statement from Foley:  "each [ancient] poet or commentator appropriates 'Homer' as the source of all that is valuable in the poetic tradition and derives his [own] authority and position from that legendary attribution."

 I am going to try to show you that this kind of process is what gave us the Beloved Disciple who plays such a key role in the Gospel of John.  To do this, I'm going to borrow and develop a concept from Greg Nagy calls "retrojection."  "Retrojection" is the process that turns the name of an individual into the embodiment of an oral tradition.  Retrojection occurs through a semiotic shift in the referents for the name of the source person.  [COPY PACK #3]  By the way, all the images on these handouts are copyrighted, but not by me, so if you ever would want to use them for some strange reason please don't mention my name because I already stole them  from somebody else, but just for this presentation of course.

 At the first stage of this retrojection process, the name of the supposed source of an oral tradition signifies or represents the person who actually came up with the story.  Here I'm using the name Hasan Coso because some of Parry's storytellers called their source Hasan Coso.  Now of course, this may or may not be the actual name of that source person, or of any real person, and later ideas about who this source person was may be wrong.  So I am stressing that I am speaking here of the semiotic function of the supposed source's name:  the name Hasan Coso stands for the supposed author.

  At the second stage of the retrojection process, the name of the supposed source comes to represent a legendary figure with all kinds of superhuman abilities and who represents the "ultimate storyteller."  So now the name "Hasan Coso" refers to this legendary person, and not to the human source person per se, although this legendary source person is an extension of the identity of the original author, but just now possessing qualities that normal storytellers wish they possessed.

 At the third stage of retrojection, the name of the source comes to refer to the entire oral performance tradition, as that tradition embodies the qualities and values expressed in the legendary hero from Stage 2.

 "Retrojection" occurs between Stages 2 and 3, when the later referents of the name of the source are shifted backwards onto the earlier stages.  For example, once legendary abilities have been attributed to the source person at Stage 2, these will be retrojected backwards, and they will efface the actual biographical details of the supposed source.  And then once this superhero here at Stage 2 starts to epitomize the whole tradition itself, the evolving values of contemporary oral performance at Stage 3 will be retrojected back onto the legendary singer, which will likely lead to some revisions there also.

 Foley's points would be, #1, that it is impossible to write a biography for the person called "Hasan Coso" who is thought to be the source of the Slavic epic tradition back at Stage 1; and point #2 is that what we find at Stage 2 will reveal what is considered important at Stage 3.  What this superhero at Stage 2 can do is what the rest wish they could do.

 Now, it is possible, and I would say "likely," that the Beloved Disciple developed through a process of retrojection; and that what we have now in the Fourth Gospel is a kind of trade hero for the people who were trying to protect the Johannine tradition at the time John was written.  And if this is the case, FG's portrait of the Beloved Disciple epitomizes the goals and values of that group of people.  He becomes a metaphor for the Johannine tradition itself, just like John Henry is a metaphor for the steel-driving industry.  Again, I am not saying anything about whether such a person ever existed; I am talking about the reasons why the Beloved Disciple is presented as he is.

 If you will allow me to take the retrojection model for just a second, then there are at least three possible ways to explain the origin of the Beloved Disciple [COPY PACK #4, TOP OF SHEET].  And I freely admit that that these are not mutually exclusive and they're not intended to be:

 #1) The Beloved Disciple may be a purely legendary, or what Bultmann called an "ideal," figure.   If that's the case, then the Beloved Disciple is a literary character who is synonymous with the Johannine tradition, and who was invented at some point and put into the story to stress the validity of that tradition.  And if you take this route, you end up with the Beloved Disciple being a personification of the "we who have witnessed" in those plural verbs at 1 John 1:1-3.

 2) A second possibility, the Beloved Disciple may have been generated as a mirror image of another character who was already in the Johannine tradition.  So that, if this happened, the Beloved Disciple would function to give a more complete and balanced sense of witness in the tradition.  You're all aware that legendary figures a lot of times travel in pairs:  Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe; the Lone Ranger and Tonto; Sherlock Holmes and Watson; Scooby Doo and Shaggy.  In cases like this, the partner makes up for something the main character lacks.  So with the Fourth Gospel, you would have the Beloved Disciple making up for some deficiency in his partner and taking the witness to the next level.

 Now it don't take no brain surgeon to figure that, if this happened, that other character would be Peter, because the Beloved Disciple is always with Peter in John, but he is always one step ahead of him.  And since Peter is everywhere in early Jesus traditions, whoever came up with the Fourth Gospel would already have stories with Peter in them already, so it's just a matter of making up for what Peter lacks by having this "Beloved Disciple" character fill in the gaps, which in Peter's case of course are very many.

 3) Finally, Model 3, it may be that the Beloved Disciple is the latest version of a real person who was a key player early on in the Johannine tradition.  Just like Davy Crockett was a real historical person, even though he did not kill "bare" at age 3.  And John Chapman was a real person, even if he did not do everything ascribed to Johnny Appleseed.  And if you follow this model and shoot the trajectory out beyond my diagrams here, you end at the association of Beloved Disciple with John the Apostle in the second century, which by then is an attempt to re-historicize an actual person who had become mythical.

 Personally, I like the third model because it covers all the issues raised in the first two and also because it fits my reading of 1 John.  I've got a handout there [#5 COPY PACK] which shows you what the retrojection process would be here.  Basically, you have a key person early in the Johannine tradition who might have had some actual contact with Jesus, I would say "who probably did" have some actual contact with Jesus, who is then developed into a legendary figure by setting him against Peter and making him do right everything that Peter does wrong.  And then in the face of the AntiChrist problem, this legendary person becomes the ultimate witness to the events in Jesus' life which are critical to Johannine Christology, and he becomes the trump card these people pull out when they need to put themselves above other interpretations of Jesus.

 But whichever of these models you accept, if any of them, any one of them explains the features of the Beloved Disciple which I've got there on the bottom of handout #4 [COPY PACK].  You can read all of that later if you want to, but let me highlight three:

 #1)  The BD appears only at key points in the narrative where eyewitness testimony would be crucial for historical or theological reasons, i.e.,  Jesus' baptism; the Upper Room, which is the setting of the Johannine Farewell Address and the love command; the trials of Jesus; the crucifixion; the water and blood; the empty tomb.  These are the places that all later Johannine preachers would wish they had been.

 #4) The biographical details about the Beloved Disciple are remarkably vague, especially for a gospel which otherwise develops its characters more than most.  For instance, John knows that Simon, Andrew, and Philip are from Bethsaida (1:43); that Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews (3:1); he knows that John was baptizing near Aenon in Salim because there was a lot of water there (3:23); he knows that the lame man had been at Bethesda for 38 years before he met Jesus (5:5); he knows that Jesus' brothers did not believe in him (7:5); he knows that Lazarus, Mary and Mary were siblings, and that they lived in Bethany, which is two miles away from Jerusalem (11:18); he knows that Peter is standing by a charcoal fire outside Annas' house during Jesus' trial (18:18); he knows that Pilate has to leave his headquarters to talk to the Jews because they did not want to defile themselves before the Passover (18:28).  John knows that Judas the betrayer was from Iscariot (14:22), but he does not know where the Beloved Disciple was from.

 Now this is not to say that any of that information is necessarily historical, but I would point out that John is everywhere concerned with details about incidental people and places, and yet he does not relate a single biographical fact about the Beloved Disciple, not even his name, except maybe that he might have been a disciple of John the Baptist, if John 1:34-35 is talking about this same character, and that he might have been "known to the high priest," if you want to count that as a "biographical detail."  Now how do you figure that when he stakes everything that is crucial to his beliefs on the Beloved Disciple's testimony?  Maybe this silence comes from the fact that John no longer knew anything about the historical person at the foundation of his tradition, because all he knew about was this superhuman figure at Stage 2.

 #6) The author of 1-2-3 John frequently insists that his information about Jesus comes "from the beginning" (ap arch ) or "from him" (ap autou) and also highlights the motifs of "witness" and physical contact with Jesus, but never names the specific source of this information.  It may be that the terms "from the beginning" and "witness" characterize the tradition itself as synonymous with the Beloved Disciple.

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