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John 18a – Was John Related to the Priests?

John 18:15 reads, “Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the court of the high priest” (all verses here in ESV). Who was this “other disciple” and if he was John, could family relations explain his connection with the High Priest?

First, at the end of the day we have to admit that the author of John doesn’t tell us who this disciple is. He’s not designated “the disciple whom Jesus loved” here, so linking those two together isn’t necessary or explicit in this text. The traditional interpretation has been to identify this “other disciple” with the beloved disciple (and traditionally, the beloved disciple has been identified as John, for good reason). Support for this is that the beloved disciple is called the “other disciple” in John 20:2-4 and 8, as well as the close relationship John and Peter shared.

So for now, let’s assume that this “other disciple” was the apostle John, the author of this book. If it was John, what was the basis of his connection with the High Priest? We shouldn’t assume that John, being a fisherman, would have had no contact with anyone outside of that occupation. In fact, there is evidence that John’s family business was quite lucrative, as Mark 1:20 says that they were big enough to have hired employees. It might’ve been possible that John’s family knew the High Priest just because of their popularity at the shore.

However, there’s also a chance that John might’ve had priestly blood in him. Mark 15:40 describes the women who were at the foot of the cross as Jesus was crucified. It says, “There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.”

So Mark identifies three women at the cross: 1) Mary Magdalene, 2) Mary, mother of James and Joses, 3) Salome.

Compare that with the parallel passage in Matthew: “among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Matt 27:56).

Matthew also identifies three women at the cross: 1) Mary Magdalene, 2) Mary, mother of James and Joseph (another spelling of Mark’s “Joses”), 3) the mother of the sons of Zebedee (including the apostle John; cf. Mark 1:19-20).

When we compare these lists, we wonder whether Mark’s “Salome” is the proper name for Matthew’s “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” or “John’s mom.” Because much of the other material is tightly parallel between these passages, it’s safe to say that Salome = John’s mom’s name.

Now, let’s bring in the Gospel of John: “but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” (19:25).

There is a debate over whether John has three or four women standing at the foot of the cross. If four, it is 1) Mary, Jesus’ mother, 2) Mary’s sister, 3) Mary, Clopas’s wife, 4) Mary Magdalene.

But the Greek text could read that “His mother’s sister” is “Mary the wife of Clopas.” So it would be 1) Mary, Jesus’ mother, 2) Mary’s sister, named Mary, who was Clopas’s wife, 3) Mary Magdalene. However, this is probably not the best way to read the passage, simply because it would require that Mary’s parents not only named her Mary, but also named her sister Mary! Unless you’re George Foreman, that doesn’t make much sense.

So let’s now compare John’s list of four women with Matthew and Mark’s list of three:

 

John’s List Matthew/Mark’s List
Mary, Jesus’ mother Mary, mother of James and Joseph
Mary’s sister Salome, John’s mother
Mary, Clopas’ wife  
Mary Magdalene Mary Magdalene

 

If our logic is correct, both John and Matthew/Mark put Jesus’ mother Mary and Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross (Matthew and Mark note that Mary was the mother of James and Joseph. We know James was a half-brother of Jesus, and it would’ve been natural for Mary and Joseph to name one of their sons after the patriarch of the family).

John alone lists Mary, Clopas’ wife. But it is likely that John and Matthew/Mark refer to the same person when they refer to Mary’s sister, Salome, who is also John’s mother. This would mean John the Apostle and Jesus shared some relation.

To take things a step further, we know from Luke’s Gospel that Mary (Jesus’ mother) was related to Elizabeth (Luke 1:36), mother of John the Baptist. Some translations say they were “cousins,” but the Greek word can simply mean “relative,” leaving the connection uncertain. Luke tells us that Elizabeth was “one of the daughters of Aaron” (1:5), meaning she comes from priestly stock.

To summarize, Mary (Jesus’ mother) is related to Elizabeth, who was from a priestly family. Mary’s sister Salome (the Apostle John’s mother) must also have been related to Elizabeth then, which means the Apostle John had very close family connections with the priests.

Putting the icing on the cake is a church father named Eusebius, who quoted Polycrates (an even older church father) who said that John the son of Zebedee (the Apostle John) was a priest (EH 3.31.3).

All in all, assuming all these connections are legitimate and the Synoptics and John are speaking of the same people, we can say with relative certainty that the Apostle John/The Beloved Disciple/The “Other Disciple” likely had a familial tie with the priests, which would explain the note in John 18:15-16 about him “being known by the high priest.”

Whew! And you thought your family tree was complicated!

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