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 (Jesus’ Hebrew name) 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 (in white t-shirt) 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 authentic Roman form of crucifixion, including the way the body was positioned on the cross and that victims were strung up naked (no loin cloth for modesty).
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 Jesus resisted the “last temptation” to avoid crucifixion and 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 (never mentioned by proper name). All icons, paintings, and carvings of Jesus and the beloved disciple show him leaning on Jesus’ breast.
However, his most prominent place in the gospel of John 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 sanctuary.
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 than “disciple” or “apostle.” But there is no indication that Jesus had a homosexual relationship with any of his “friends,” including the “beloved disciple.”
There is a biblical friendship that does suggest a homosexual, or at least a homoerotic, relationship: the friendship of David and Jonathan. After the shepherd boy David’s killing of the Philistine Goliath and bringing the giant’s severed head to King Saul, the king’s son Jonathan (also a warrior) was smitten by the good looking hero. The biblical text says that “the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1). Jonathan made a lifelong covenant with David by stripping himself of the robe he was wearing and giving it to David.
David stayed in Saul’s house and was given the king’s daughter Michal in marriage. David soothed Saul’s troubled spirit by playing the harp for him and he was also victorious in battles against the Philistines. Time and again in a jealous rage Saul tried to kill David and Jonathan always interceded for him. Finally he helped David escape from Saul’s court, not without kissing and shedding many tears (1 Samuel 20:41). David lived as an outlaw for a time and finally took refuge in the land of the Philistines while Saul continued to wage war on the Philistines. When news of Saul’s and Jonathan’s death in battle was brought to David, he lamented greatly. “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26).
David compared his love for Jonathan to heterosexual love, saying it even surpassed it. Jonathan had pursued David from the beginning and provided his covenanted partner with protection from his mentally deranged father. Considering the extent of homosexual relationships between men in the ancient Middle East, even between warriors, it is likely that David and Jonathan had an intimate friendship that involved homoerotic feelings, if not behavior. David was obviously not exclusively homosexual, as his sultry seduction of Bathsheba demonstrates. But the story of David and Jonathan illustrates the ambiguity in intimate male friendship between homoerotic feelings and homosexual expressions of love.
Today “intimacy” is understood primarily in a sexual context and male intimacy is assumed to be homosexual. The problem is that the modern 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 in the late 19th century 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. In traditional societies of indigenous people homosexual behavior was accepted and sometimes encouraged. In Western heterosexual-exclusive societies homosexual behavior was not only discouraged but punished by law. Homophobia is a consequence of heterosexual cultural exclusivity combined with 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” or because they don’t want to be perceived as gay. As a consequence they suppress their own homoerotic feelings.
What has been lost is a more fluid sexual relationship between men that allows for expressions of non-sexual male intimacy. Being present to a male friend going through a personal trauma by giving physical comfort– hugging, cuddling, even kissing — should not be considered “gay.” It’s what men should be capable of doing, whether gay or straight or somewhere in between.
Boys and men have hugged and kissed each other and even slept together when necessity required it. For example, in the crowded hotels and boarding houses on the American frontier men often shared a bed. Abraham Lincoln shared a bed with Joshua Speed and several other men in his life. Some of his biographers have probed Lincoln’s ambiguous sexuality, but that social convention at the time is not enough by itself to regard him as a homosexual. Sharing your bed with a visiting friend from out-of-town, or having a sleepover with a school mate, does not imply a homosexual relationship.
But sometimes boys and young men have allowed their intimate friendships to result in homoerotic intimacy expressed in touching and exploring the other’s body, which may be received and reciprocated. The famous (or infamous) Kinsey Report found that the 20,000 subjects interviewed in the study of male sexuality had varying degrees of both heterosexual and homosexual experiences. It concluded that “males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual.” The Kinsey Institute proposed a continuum in male responsiveness to erotic behavior. Ritch C. Savin-Williams has published his study of millennial men entitled Mostly Straight: Sexual Fluidity Among Men (Harvard niversity Press, 2017) that shows the willingness of “straight” young men to have gay sex when the occasion and opportunity presents itself. The book includes interviews with several of his subjects.
This being said, we also have to recognize that many men have had problems with the erotic. They see it confined to sexual activity in the bedroom. They have kept their passions, their desire to touch or to hug another male, under control. Letting loose with homoerotic feelings in other areas of their lives, even with their best friend, seems unmanly. And straight men don’t want to be perceived as gay. There’s a stigma attached to it. But eros invites men to loosen their grip on their need to control and be able to express their feelings and needs and even their love toward another man.
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 been formed that include gay and straight men. Men cuddling men is not necessarily a gay thing. There’s also no reason that gay and straight men can’t be buddies to each other and share intimate thoughts and feelings.
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, maybe even a gay friend. 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.
Men, whether gay or straight, need an intimate male friendship with someone, whether straight or gay, who is trustworthy and caring. Men need a buddy. Blessed are you, man, if you have such an intimate friend.
Pastor Frank Senn