On my counting the figure designated ‘the Beloved Disciple’ appears seven times in the Gospel according to St John; in all but one of them he is closely associated with Peter, which suggests the Evangelist thinks their relationship important. Modern exegesis has tended to see it as one of rivalry, with the ‘Johannine community’ being contrasted favourably with the Petrine one. This has certainly been the tendency of Rudolf Bultmann (The Gospel of John, (1971)) and those influenced by him, who see in John the representative of a Gentile Christianity which is both more active and creative than Peter’s Jewish Christianity which is more passive in its reception of tradition. Peter, in this view, comes to stand for a negative strain in the Gospel that was beginning to introduce negative or objectionable understandings. Others have gone so far as to see a struggle between Spirit-filled Christianity (as represented by John) and official, ecclesiastical Christianity as represented by Peter.
The late Fr Raymond Brown went, as was his wont, even further, suggesting that the Beloved Disciple was portrayed so as to offset the dominance of the Twelve in the developing Church and to teach that ‘ecclesiastical authority is not the sole criteria for judging importance in the following of Jesus’ (Community of the Beloved Disciple (1979),191).
Centuries of dispute over the identity of the ‘Beloved Disciple’ have signally failed to satisfy scholars enough to produce a consensus, and even a scholar I admire as much as I do Richard Bauckham gets close to the old schoolboy parody that the Illiad wasn’t written by Homer, but another bloke of the same name, and you pays your money and you takes your choice. The Evangelist chose not to name him, and we’d be wise to respect that. Here, though, I want to look at this idea that there is a rivalry going on and that we should read John and Peter as types of early Christianity in conflict.
The complex and heavily symbolic nature of John’s Gospel needs no emphasising; the book is one which a narrative which operates at a number of levels, where signs and metaphors abound, and to me the idea that the portrayal of the relationship between the Beloved Disciple and Peter can be reduced to such a simplistic reading seems unlikely. Of course, the whole idea that there was a ‘Johannine’ community, is to some extent a scholarly construct, but it is not without merit, and provides us with a possible hermeneutic through which to read the relationship not as a rivalry, but as a way of correctly any supposition to that effect.
We know, from the epistles, that the Johannine community had its own crisis of authority, where not even John’s links with the Saviour were enough to persuade those who thought that Christ was not God Incarnate, otherwise. Charles Hill has countered the old view that John’s Gospel had gnostic origins by showing that whilst the Gnostics certainly (mis)used it, the orthodox were equally attached to it, which posits the idea that parts of the Johnannine community was absorbed into the Church whilst part of it went Gnostic. What I want to do in the next couple of posts is to suggest that if we read John’s Gospel around a different view of Peter and John, we may get some insight into the process.