Two Unnamed Disciples Named – and the Beloved One is a Woman!
A Look at John 21:2 and 24 in Greek and Aramaic
By James David Audlin. The following text comprises material from: The Works of John Restored and Translated, published by Editores Volcán Barú. Copyright © 2014 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. In fact, verse 24 is deliberately meant to identify the two disciples in verse 2: it begins ουτοςεστιν, “this is”, with the “this” clearly referring back to those two mentioned at the beginning. 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 first phrase, “This is the disciple who bears witness concerning all this”, is the signature of Mary, the Beloved Disciple, the primary eyewitness. The second phrase, “…and (this is) the one who has written these things”, refers to John the Presbyter, the amanuensis and secondary eyewitness. Therefore, these phrases give us a picture of the working relationship between the two, as discussed in the Introduction. The third phrase refers to the two of them together: “…and we (both) know that her (Mary’s) testimony is true.” The gospel would later be given seven certifications of verity similar to this one; this is the first, and in it both Mary and John here certify their certainty that Mary’s testimony is true. The gospel makes references, such as at 8:13, to the requirement in the laws of the Torah (e.g., Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15) of at least two witnesses, and any first-century Jew reading this text would instantly think of this requirement, and so Mary and John present themselves here as the two witnesses.
These two disciples are the two unnamed disciples mentioned at the end of verse 2; by in effect saying who they are here at the end this short work has an A-B-A symmetry, which of course prefigures its monumental presence in the Gospel of John.
The Greek pronouns in this verse are inspecific as to gender: either disciple could be of either gender. But the Aramaic versions are quite different in this regard. Verse 24 in the early Codex Syriac Sinaiticus says:
ܗܢܘ ܬܠܡܝܕܐ ܕܐܣܗܕ ܥܠ ܗܠܝܢ ܘܟܬܒ ܐܢ̈ܝܢ ܘܝܕܥܝܢ ܐܢܚܢܢ ܕܫܪܝܪܐ ܗܝ ܣܗܕܘܬܗ
This disciple (is) the one who witnessed about these (things), and also (this is the disciple who) has written them. And we know that she, the first one, (has testified) true testimony.
The personal pronoun referring back to the disciple who giving the testimony, the Beloved Disciple, ܗܝ (hī), without question means “she”. And the somewhat later Peshitta reads:
ܗܢܘ ܬܠܡܝܕܐ ܕܐܣܗܕ ܥܠ ܗܠܝܢ ܟܠܗܝܢ ܘܐܦ ܟܬܒ ܐܢܝܢ ܘܝܕܥܝܢ ܚܢܢ ܕܫܪܝܪܐ ܗܝ ܣܗܕܘܬܗ
This disciple witnessed about all these (things); also (this is the disciple who) has written them. We know that she (has testified) true testimony.
Again the same feminine pronoun. While the sense of the verse is on the whole identical to the Greek, no surviving Greek text has anything like a feminine pronoun here. Since the wording of these two Aramaic texts is slightly different but in nothing important, they have to be based on an earlier text that does not survive that specifically said the Beloved Disciple was a “she”. There are no specifically feminine pronouns in the Greek of this period, so no way to say she has testified true testimony or her testimony is true. This strongly suggests not a Greek but an Aramaic original behind the the two texts cited above, which were modified in slightly different ways by the copyists who prepared them.
Given the facts of the text, it is astonishing to me that every major translation of the Codex 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. Since most New Testament scholars rely on these translations, being unacquainted with the Aramaic language, the fact of this feminine pronoun has not been properly studied.