Two Unnamed Disciples Named –
and the Beloved One is a Woman!
A Look at John 21:2 and 24 in Greek and Aramaic
James David Audlin
The following text comprises material from The Works of John Restored and Translated, published by Editores Volcán Barú, copyright © 2014, 2015 by James David Audlin. All worldwide rights reserved. Reprinted here by permission of the publisher, Editores Volcán Barú.
The two unnamed disciples in John 21:2 might be Andrew and Levi son of Hilphai; the only extant fragment we have of the Gospel of Peter breaks off with a reference to this fishing episode, and it mentions Peter, Andrew, and Levi as taking part. One of them could also be Philip, who like Andrew is mentioned in the gospel proper. But arguing against this view is the fact that Andrew at least and probably Philip too were associated with John the Presbyter (The Gospel of John, page 234), as surely were others as well who would have remembered who the unnamed two were, whom he could have asked to fill in any gaps in memory (his or Mary’s) on this point.
To arrive at the best understanding of these two unnamed disciples it is essential to recall the point that this letter was written to set the record straight as to what happened on that fateful morning; thus it would hardly begin by conceding faulty memory! And so I think the two disciples are identified, but rather than here they are identified in the last verse, which is an example of the Presbyter’s inclusio technique, since it also speaks of two disciples: one who “bears witness” as to what happened that day and one who has written it down. The first is of course the Beloved Disciple, who is being counted among the seven disciples present in this scene: she being on shore with Jesus, and the other six in the boat. The other can only be John himself, the Presbyter-to-be, having left the Temple priesthood to join this little band of Jesus followers. That the other, John, “knows that her (Mary’s) testimony is true” tells us that he was there with the disciples that morning, whether or not he was privy to the private conversation. The use of inclusio in the Gospel of John is so prominent that its appearance here also serves to confirm the authorship of the Presbyter.
In verse 21:24 we find both individuals responsible for this letter have in effect “signed their names” to it. The grammar in the Greek version is rather confusing, while the Aramaic is not; this is rather obviously because the scribe who translated the latter into the former made a mistake. To make the mistake clear first we must discuss the Aramaic.
The Codex Syriac Sinaiticus begins with ܗܢܘ ܬܠܡܝܕܐ, which grammatically can be understood as being in the singular (“This is the disciple”) or the plural (“These are the disciples”), depending on the context. In this case it should be taken as plural, and here are two reasons.
First, it serves as a classic example of inclusio, or A-B-A symmetry. Throughout his writings John the Presbyter makes great use of this literary technique, in which elements from the beginning of a work are reinvoked at its end – this technique is of course a most prominent feature in the gospel. The beginning of this letter mentions “two others of his disciples” as participating in this seaside event, and here at the end they are mentioned again. They are specifically named neither in 21:2 nor here, but presumably the letter’s salutation, which as explained above was no doubt lopped off when the letter was grafted into the gospel, provided the two names: Mary and John. Thus the “These” here refers not only to 21:2 but surely also to the missing salutation, to confirm that the unnamed disciples are specifically Mary and John.
Second, it creates A-B-B-A symmetry within this verse: it provides the necessary antecedent plural to which the phrase later in the verse, ܘܝܕܥܝܢ ܐܢܚܢܢ (“we know…”), refers. These plural phrases, “These are…” and “we know…”, frame the two phrases between them, which delineate singly the disciples who make up that plural: the one who gave the testimony and the one who wrote it down. After the “we know” the sentence concludes with a second reference to the first, testifying disciple, giving the sentence an overall A-B-B-A-B structure.
The first disciple is witness to the events described, the Beloved Disciple about whom Jesus and Simon have just spoken in the preceding verses. The Beloved Disciple, of course, is Mary, as is firmly established in The Gospel of John. The Aramaic of this verse confirms that it is Mary with the personal pronoun in the last phrase, the one that refers back to the disciple who gives the testimony, whom we know to be the Beloved Disciple. That pronoun is ܗܝ (hī). Even though it is pronounced like the English “he”, it means “she”. Indeed, though the Peshitta, a later Syriac Aramaic version to some degree edited to conform to the by-then-standard Greek text, contains some minor variations in wording that do not affect the meaning of the verse in the least, it too has the ܗܝ (“she”) very much in evidence. (Note that this “she” functions in this context as a possessive: in English, “her”.)
Thus, despite the masculine nouns that usually would have prompted the author to use a masculine pronoun for this disciple, ܗܘ (hw), he uses ܗܝ (hī). The effect is to emphasize not the role (disciple) but the person: he wants us to know not just that this is a woman but a particular woman. And, whether or not the missing letter introduction mentioned her by name, as I said a few pages ago only one woman in the story of Jesus is so central that she does not need to be named by name: Mary.
A correspondent hoping to defend the dogma that the Beloved Disciple is male insisted to me that the feminine pronoun here agrees with the feminine noun ܣܗܕܘܬܗ at the end of the verse. They interpret this word as “witness”, in the sense of “a person who gives testimony”, and then say the feminine pronoun ܗܝ referring to the disciple is agreeing in gender with the feminine noun. However, ܣܗܕܘܬܗ really refers to the testimony itself, and so it cannot modify the pronoun pointing to the disciple. Besides, there is a related but different noun, ܣܗܕܐ, which does mean “a person who gives testimony”, i.e., a “witness” in the sense of a person, but this word is masculine, and so, if it had been written here, it could never change the masculine pronoun for a male disciple to a feminine pronoun. We must conclude that the pronoun ܗܝ refers to the disciple, and the noun ܣܗܕܘܬܗ refers to the testimony given by that disciple, that they are only coincidentally both feminine, and that one does not modify the other. Indeed, this “she”, despite the masculine nouns, serves to emphasize this disciple’s identity as Mary.
Thus the phrase describing the first disciple as the one “who has witnessed to all this” is in effect Mary the Beloved Disciple’s signature to this letter. The second phrase, “…and also (the one who) has written (about all this)”, is likewise the signature of John the Presbyter.
Why these signatures? And why do they then provide a joint affidavit of truthfulness, “We (both) know that she is truthful, the one who gives witness.”? The Gospel of John contains references, such as at 8:13, to the requirement of at least two witnesses in the laws of the Torah (e.g., Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15), and any first-century Jew reading this affidavit in which Mary and John present themselves as the two witnesses would instantly have recalled that requirement. Indeed, the gospel would later be given not one but seven certifications of verity similar to this one, further demonstrating the Presbyter’s determination to prove by Torah-based law to his fellow Jews that these writings contain the truth.
These two phrases also give us a picture of the working relationship between the two, as discussed in the Introduction: Mary recalling aloud in detail the events, and John taking notes later to develop into a finished work. The final phrase has the two of them join in an affidavit of veracity: “We (both) know…”, confirming that they worked together on this letter.
As noted, the first delineating phrase in Aramaic, ܗܢܘ ܬܠܡܝܕܐ, can be understood as being in the singular (“This is the disciple”) or the plural (“These are the disciples”). I think I have made a good case for the latter. However, the Greek translator apparently took this phrase in the singular, as describing one disciple who both gave the testimony and wrote it down: ο μαρτυρων περι τουτων και ο γραψας ταυτα (“the one bearing witness about these things and the one having written these things”). As a result he put the first phrase into Greek as ουτος εστιν ο μαθητης. As a result, the beginning of the last phrase, “We know…”, loses in Greek its antecedent plural noun – a grammatical error frowned upon in Greek (and English) but wholly unacceptable in Aramaic, and yet it remains there for the careful reader to see.
The Greek pronouns in this verse are inspecific as to gender, giving no hint that one of the disciples is female. Indeed, the Greek language of this period had no specifically feminine pronoun that would fit this context, so it had no way to say she has testified true testimony or her testimony is true. Indeed, most likely the scribe who prepared even the first Greek version, being in a later time in which Paul’s asexual Jesus was doctrine, believed (like my interlocutor referred to above) that all of the disciples were men, and would never have even entertained the thought, let alone suggest, that the Beloved Disciple was female.
It is inconceivable, if the Aramaic was originally rendered from a Greek text (which I do not believe was the case), that the translator in that later time would put the Aramaic feminine pronoun in the place of a Greek neuter pronoun. That could only be if he and his community believed the Beloved Disciple was female. That is possible, but unlikely except around Ephesus where John’s teachings survived for a while, but increasingly less likely as over the years the Pauline dogma of a spiritual-bodied sexless Jesus and twelve male disciples took increasing hold.
How then is it that the Aramaic versions state her gender clearly? The philosophical term “elegant” refers to the simplest, likeliest, and most logical solution. And here the most elegant conclusion is that John wrote this letter in Aramaic and he knew the Beloved Disciple to be female. He wrote the gospel itself in Greek, and the early Aramaic versions like the Syriac Sinaiticus and Curetonian are translations into Aramaic but translations from the Syriac Aramaic community in the area of Ephesus, perhaps even prepared with John’s help in his last years. But these versions would not have needed to translate chapter 21 into Aramaic if they had access to the original text as composed by John in that language!
This Aramaic-first explanation is also supported by the thesis expressed in the introduction that John wrote this letter primarily to Simon and his disciples, to counter the rumor he was fostering that Mary was immortal – since Simon’s mother tongue, like John’s, was Aramaic, not Greek.
Given the fact of the Syriac feminine pronoun, I find it astonishing that every major translation of the Syriac Sinaiticus and the Peshitta puts down “he” in the English instead of “she”. This is not just reading what the text clearly says through the soiled and distorting lenses of later dogma, this is irresponsible translating. Most New Testament scholars suffer from what I call græcomyopia litteratus, the inability to take seriously any early text unless it is in Greek, they are unacquainted with the Aramaic language and must rely on these translations. It pains me even more deeply when New Testament scholars who do study the early Aramaic texts are so blinded by the Textus Receptus that they put an obviously feminine pronoun into English and other modern languages with a masculine pronoun. As a result, the fact of this feminine pronoun has not been properly noticed by New Testament scholars, let alone studied, as it should be.