Question: What do you make of the “beloved disciple” in the New Testament? Is it possible that Jesus and John had a, let us say, very “intimate’ relationship? Or, to put it another way – a 30 year old unmarried guy who had a special thing for mom and hung out mostly with guys. What’s up with that?
Answer: Yes, Jesus had an “intimate relationship” with the “beloved disciple.” Let’s figure out what that could mean.
There has been a tendency among some gay interpreters to draw the conclusion that Jesus was gay and that he had something going on with the “beloved disciple,” who is usually identified as John, one of the sons of Zebedee. In fact, in some imaginings the whole group of disciples has been imagined as gay. This was the case in Terrence McNally’s play, Corpus Christ, about a gay Jesus named Joshua who was followed across 1950s Texas by a band of gay guys. Obviously in the late 1990s this had great shock value, and still did in a 2011 revival.
Douglas Blanchard painted 24 scenes of a gay Jesus experiencing his passion, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, using contemporary pictorial settings. This is his painting of the last supper. The beloved disciple leans on Jesus and Judas (in black t-shirt) tries to insinuate himself into the scene.
Let us recognize that there has always been a tendency to see a Jesus who is relevant to our own interests and situation. So Byzantine imperial Christianity favored the image of Christ as Pantocrator (Ruler of all things). Late medieval Western Christians, experiencing plagues and widespread death, were devoted to the crucified Jesus as the mutilated “man of sorrows.”
If Jesus was truly human, did he have sexual desires? Did he act on them? Nikos Kazantzakos imagined “the last temptation of Jesus” to avoid the cross and marry Mary Magdalene. But Jesus remains celibate to the end. In his film version of The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese portrays the body of Jesus that lusts and desires sex and intimacy and keeps the camera on Willem Dafoe’s body in all details from the carpenter shop to the cross. Scorsese wanted to portray an authenic Roman form of crucifixion, including the way the body was positioned on the cross and that victims were strung up naked.
But Scorsese also wanted close-up shots to bring out the internal passion of Jesus on the cross in order to relate more intimately to humanity. This intimate Jesus was the figure Kazantzakis wanted to portray in his novel, even though he resisted the “last temptation” to lead a normal married life with Mary Magdalene.
What role does the “the disciple whom Jesus loved” play in the Gospels, especially in the Gospel of John where this disciple figures prominently? In a Gospel laden with symbolism commentators have looked for a symbolic role for the beloved disciple. His most prominent place is at the foot of the cross with the mother of Jesus. Jesus commits the care of his mother to the beloved disciple. The scene of the three figures — Jesus on the cross, the sorrowing mother, and the beloved disciple — came to be displayed in most medieval churches as the rood scene suspended above the architectural division between the nave and the cancel.
The most common symbolic interpretation of Mary in the Fourth Gospel is that she is the figure of the church. The beloved disciple is the apostle or Christian to whom the care of the care of the church is committed.
I said in a preliminary answer to the question that Jesus had an “intimate relationship” with the beloved disciple. This can be understood in terms of a special friendship. In the Fourth Gospel Jesus says after the foot washing that he will no longer call his band “disciples” but “friends.” “Friend” suggests a closer relationship. Our problem today is that “intimacy” is understood primarily in a sexual context and male intimacy is assumed to be homosexual.
The problem is that the clinical designations “homosexual” and “heterosexual” define the entire being of a person according to a particular sexual orientation. Before the use of these clinical terms became widespread individuals weren’t understood in terms of an orientation but only in terms of their sexual behavior — sexual acts that could be performed by either homosexuals or heterosexuals. Homophobia is a consequence of this clinical designation of same-sex attraction. It’s the fear of contact with men whose very being implies a same-sex attraction. “Straight” men don’t want to get too close, maybe for fear of a “come on.” They also suppress their own homoerotic feelings.
Yet we all have had same-sex friendships that have lasted a long time. It may have been a childhood friend or a high school friend or a college friend whose friendship remains over the years. There have been times when we have shared intimate experiences and feelings with this friend. And there have been instances of homoerotic feelings and maybe even expressions of it like hugging or kissing (or more in youthful explorations) without necessarily being gay. I dare say it is also possible for gay and straight buddies to retain a friendship that doesn’t have to be a sexual relationship.
Men have had problems with the erotic. They see it confined to sexual activity in the bedroom. Elsewhere they have kept their passions, their desire to touch or to hug, under control. Letting loose in other areas of their lives, even with their best friend, seems unmanly. And they don’t want to be perceived as gay. But Eros invites men to loosen their grip on their need to control and be able to express their feelings and needs.
Recent research by the Kinsey Institute found that men like cuddling and need touch as much if not more than women. Male cuddling social groups have even been formed. Men cuddling men is not necessarily a gay thing.
Jesus himself made no pronouncement about homosexuality because the concept wasn’t available at the time. Nor did he hang out mostly with men. A rabbi having male disciples was conventional. The unconventional thing about Jesus is that he also had women disciples who followed him from Galilee to Jerusalem. Jesus had a lot to teach us about love for one another, including the intimacy of friendship. One of his friends was “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” and he was present at the foot of the cross when all the rest fled, except some women and Jesus’ mother. This friend was also willing to take Jesus’ mother into his own home and provide care for her.
Women have much less difficulty with friendship than men do. I believe that men also need an intimate friendship with a buddy who can be relied upon just to be a companion — someone beyond spouse and family and work associates. I think gay men also need a friend, perhaps even a straight friend, beyond their gay friends and lovers. Women often have “lady friends” they do things with and share their life issues with. Men, too, need buddies who can be “sounding boards” as they navigate their relationship with the significant woman in their life — or the significant man. Blessed are you if you have a trustworthy and caring friend or can be such a friend to someone else.
Pastor Frank Senn