During my days in Graduate School, I was taught that “the disciple who leaned on Jesus’ breast” was John Mark, child-son of Mary of Jerusalem, writer of the second Gospel. However, recently I have changed my mind. Some of the reasons include a strong look at the actual biblical texts in John’s Gospel. They seem to prove that the writer of the fourth Gospel and “the disciple who leaned on Jesus’ bosom” are one and the same individual. These passages are John 13:21-30; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7; 21:24. We shall return to each of these shortly.
The opinion that John Mark is “the leaning disciple” makes sense to a 20th and 21st century western American male mind-set. It is at least awkward to think that Jesus and John, two full-grown men would sit or recline in each other’s bosom! It’s a picture we just don’t like to think about. The word translated “bosom” is kolpos and is “lap” as used by Rudolf Meyer in Kittel’s massive Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.
However, the other picture is of the man Jesus holding on His lap the young boy, John Mark, nephew or cousin of Barnabas, son of Mary, Jesus’ hostess in the upper room at Jerusalem with His disciples. He held the fatherless child while He taught and socialized with His disciples at Mary’s house. This is a much more appealing picture. Jesus’ temperament was surely one that would attract the fatherless child hungry for adult male affection and also lead Jesus to give him attention while enjoying the residence and hospitality of his mother.
A good study of Jesus’ bosom in biblical Greek tells another story. According to Thayer, bosom is kolpos (κόλπος) and means literally “the front of the body between the arms.” Metaphorically, however, it was used in several other ways. One of these is one’s regular place at the table during dinner (deipnon - δειπνον) - the main evening meal at which the participants recline on couches and require two hours or more. John 13 where Jesus washed the disciples’ feet was such a meal and teaching time.
Meyer says “At a meal kolpos is the place of the guest of honor.” Thayer says “(It is used of) the one who so reclines at the table that his head covers the bosom as it were, the chest, of the one next to him.”
So this kolpos was the place of honor. What was John’s honor that allowed him the special seat next to Jesus in their times of teaching and ministry and social life? This is a question of fascination to which we must return.
However, before we do, it is important to note that the exquisite Luke, a precise historian and philologist, said in Luke 16:23: εν τοις κολποις τον αβρααμ ειπαι “to be in the bosom of Abraham.” By this is meant “to obtain the seat next to Abraham or to be a partaker of the blessing of Abraham.” Verse 22 sets up this meaning by saying that Lazarus the Beggar and not Dives the Rich Man was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom – paradise, a place of honor and reward.
In the Book of Maccabees IV: 13:16, we read “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were received up into Abraham’s bosom (kolpos).” This came to mean not only paradise in the after-life but also a place of special favor with another. In John 1:18, the author uses this same expression of Jesus Himself in His relation to God the Father: “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son which is in the bosom (kolpos) of the Father, He hath declared (exegeo – exegeted, interpreted) Him.” Here is an expression of the closest, most intimate relation with another—Jesus lived in the bosom of the Father.
This place of honor and appreciation means surely that John, the disciple who wrote the fourth Gospel and four other books of the New Testament, was Jesus’ special “go-to-guy.” He was the one who paid more attention to His person while the others paid greater attention to His purposes. In other words, Jesus had a “leader’s special servant,” an assistant who made things happen for the leader.
How convenient and logical this is, and how true to biblical history! Moses had his special servant and apprentice, Joshua. Elijah had Elisha to see that the immediate needs of the leader were met as he led, taught, and directed the “Sons of the Prophet” groups. It is likely that this was God’s purpose for David with Saul when he was called to be the king’s armor-bearer. But Saul rejected David and tried to thwart God’s will through jealousy and nepotism.
It is also the position of Joseph with Potiphar and ultimately Pharaoh. The Hebrew had a special word for such a personal servant to a leader. It is shareth – a noun from the verb sharath – “to serve, attend, or wait on a leader.” It is used several times in the Old Testament of those who serve the leader, are closest to him, and are his apprentice.
This seems to be the acknowledged position of John among the Twelve. In John 13:21 after Jesus had washed the feet of all the disciples and taught them about servant-leadership (13:1-20), He became troubled (agitated) in spirit and said, “…one of you will betray me” (v. 21). All were wondering of whom He spoke. So Simon Peter, the leader under Jesus of the Twelve, beckoned to the one reclining next to Jesus (“the one whom He loved”) that he should ask Him. When John did so, Jesus answered, “He it is to whom I will give a sop (piece of vegetable or bread) when I have dipped it.” When He gave it to Judas, John then knew of whom He spoke.
So John was Jesus’ shareth, His personal servant and armor-bearer. That this was, in fact, John the Apostle who wrote the fourth Gospel, and not John Mark who wrote the second Gospel as I earlier thought, is proven by the following passage.
And after the sop Satan entered into him. Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly. Now no man at the table knew for what intent he spake this unto him. For some of them thought, because Judas had the bag, that Jesus had said unto him, Buy those things that we have need of against the feast; or, that he should give something to the poor. He then having received the sop went immediately out: and it was night. (John 13:27-30)
John was close enough to be aware of Jesus’ words to Judas when He gave him the morsel and said, “What thou doest, do quickly.” John then adds that the others did not know what Jesus meant by these words. However, John knew. John the Apostle was Jesus’ Shareth:
A brief look at the following passages in John’s Gospel will show clearly that the “Leaning Disciple” was the Apostle John himself. John 19:26: When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! At the cross during Jesus’ suffering there were three women named Mary. There was His mother Mary, Mary the wife of Cleopas, Jesus’ mother’s sister, and Mary Magdalene (John 19:25). Only John of the Twelve was present at Jesus’ crucifixion (John 19:26).
John heard Jesus say to His mother, “Woman, behold thy son!” And then He said to John, “Behold thy mother!” And from that hour the disciple (whom He loved) took her (Mary) as his own mother. John 20:2: Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the LORD out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him. After Jesus’ burial and early on Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene came and stationed herself at the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. She saw that the stone had been removed from the mouth of the grave. She ran and told Simon Peter and John. John outran Peter to the tomb but did not go in. Peter, when he arrived, burst into the tomb and found it empty of a body. Then John went in “and he saw and believed” (v. 8). John was the first to arrive at the empty tomb and the first to believe – pisteuo – have saving faith in the resurrection of Jesus.
John 21:7: Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord. Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his fisher's coat unto him, (for he was naked,) and did cast himself into the sea. This event is set in Galilee, the home and workplace of Jesus’ disciples. They had returned to their earlier occupation of fishing. But on the first morning Jesus appeared to them and directed them to a miraculous catch of fish. It was John (“the disciple whom Jesus loved”) who said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” Again John was the first to recognize the resurrected Lord. Surely this is because as His armor-bearer, he knew Jesus’ idiosyncrasies better than anyone.
John 21:23: Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die: yet Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? This is a part of the passage which records Jesus’ commissioning of Peter and His re-establishment of him as chief shepherd of the fledgling ekklesia and band of apostles. When He prophesied Peter’s martyrdom (v. 19), Peter asked about John, who was following Jesus as he was accustomed to do (v. 21). Jesus’ answer was short and to the point. He said in effect, that’s not your concern, Peter. Take care of your assignment (vv. 22-23).
John 21:24: This is the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his testimony is true. This is the final reference in the fourth Gospel to “the disciple who…wrote these things…” In other words, the disciple who “leaned on Jesus’ bosom” is the same one who wrote the fourth Gospel. So, that was John the Apostle and not John Mark, son of Mary of Jerusalem. John the Apostle was Jesus’ armor-bearer and special spiritual son, closer to Him than any other.