Several times in the Gospel, John makes a statement or uses a word which can be understood in more than one way. Often times this appears to be purposeful as both meanings are correct. For example when talking to Nicodemus Jesus says a person must be born "ἄνωθεν" which means either above or again and those who become children of God (1:12) are born again from above.

In reporting the events of the resurrection, John states Mary Magdalene got Peter and another disciple (whom Jesus loved ἐφίλει) and they ran to the empty tomb:

1Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved (ἐφίλει), and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. 4Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, 7and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead
(John 20:1-9 ESV)

The immediate assumption is the disciple whom Jesus loved (ἐφίλει) saw and believed Jesus had risen from the dead. However, the reason he ran to the tomb was Mary Magdalene's report that the body had been removed by others. This disciple is expecting to find an empty tomb because "they" had removed the body of Jesus and taken it somewhere. He finds an empty tomb, discarded linen cloths, and folded face cloth. In other words, the dead body was removed and the burial clothes were left behind, exactly as Mary stated.

The narrative ends with the statement, "For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise from the dead." Is John saying the disciple whom Jesus loved (ἐφίλει) believed Mary Magdalene's report the body had been stolen?


4 Answers 4


What John (the disciple whom Jesus loved) and Peter believed was what Mary initially told them (v.2): They have taken the Lord out of the tomb (ἦραν τὸν Κύριον ἐκ τοῦ μνημείου). The believed this and not that He had been resurrected because as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead (v.9). In the next verse John even writes that they went home.

Theopylact explains:

He [John] saw the burial cloths lying separately, and believed, not [at first] that the Lord had risen, but as Mary had reported, that He had been stolen: They have taken away the Lord [v.2]. John himself explains that he and Peter as yet ... understood not the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. The two disciples made no further attempt to learn what had happened, but went away again unto their own home.*

* Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to John (tr. from Greek; Chrysostom Press, 2007), p.296

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    I checked seven translations and they all translate οὐδέπω the way you answered. A. T. Robertson in his Word Pictures of the New Testament explains issues with the Greek New Testament and he doesn't even mention οὐδέπω in John 20:9. Thus, it's meaning wasn't debated. John answered this question in John 20:9 because he knew readers would ask it.
    – Perry Webb
    Feb 21, 2018 at 10:08
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    Robertson does have an interesting comment about v9: John 20:9 For (γαρ [gar]). Explanatory use of γαρ [gar]. The Scripture (την γραφην [tēn graphēn]). Probably Psa. 16:10. Jesus had repeatedly foretold his resurrection, but that was all forgotten in the great sorrow on their hearts. Only the chief priests and Pharisees recalled the words of Jesus (Matt. 27:62ff.).... Robertson, A. T. (1933). Word Pictures in the New Testament (Jn 20:9). Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.
    – Perry Webb
    Feb 21, 2018 at 20:49

John saw and he believed, for as yet they did not understand.

To me, the words mean that although they - the other disciples - did not understand the scripture, John believed.

He believed because of what he, himself, had witnessed. And what he witnessed was two garments. In suffering, a garment was removed. It was intact and it was not rent asunder, John 19:23, 24. It was preserved, whole. And there in the tomb, John saw two garments : one for the head and one for the body.

John later sees a vision - Revelation 19:8 - of a bride clothed with a garment. The body, the bride, the church : clothed.

What John, initially, saw in the tomb was two pieces of cloth. Something was demonstrated by what was visible. And he believed.

But 'they' - the other disciples - did not understand the scripture.

To me, this is similar to the account of Abraham's faith. God told him to look at the stars :

And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. Genesis 15:5.

Something was demonstrated to Abraham.

And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness. Genesis 15:6.

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    I think you are right that "believe" here means that John believed in the rising of Lord, and not just in truth of Mary Magdalene's information. Yet, I think, logic of this inference is more plain and clear, with lesser clouds of lofty ambiguity: excluded, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Jesus' body is taken by a) disciples, b) Jews, c) Romans, e) any other human being (for in case of theft, He would be necessarily taken together with the linen He was wrapped in; ergo, He has risen. Belief of John is based on sincerity of thought, philosophy, as faith of any conscientious man should be. Feb 22, 2018 at 21:09

There is a certain difference between characters and spiritual dispositions between John and Peter, as noticed already by ancient theologians (like, for instance John Chrysostom /IV c./): John, the beloved disciple, is more contemplative and less ardent, the second feature being somehow conditioned by the first, whereas in Peter ardent love habitually overtakes his mind's contemplation, for which reason he even deserves a rebuke (Matt 16:23), and once even an ironic (almost merging with sarcasm) rebuke (John 13:38). Thus, here also the opposition between John and Peter, when the former did not enter the tomb but contemplatively pondered about what he has seen (βλέπει) until he waited for Peter, whereas the latter immediately rushed inside without any pause, has a clear parallel in John 21:7, when John by the height of his contemplative mind led by Spirit made a necessary inference that the man standing at the shore was the Lord, for who else, indeed, could order swarm of fishes enter the nets if not the Creator of the entire nature? And Peter having received this ready inference from his friend, showed the glowing ardency of his love and outstripped all in it, braking all conventions and swimming towards his Lord faster than all. Thus John showed the heights of spiritual contemplation, Peter - the heights of unconditional self-forgetting love.

Now, here also: what has John believed, what has such a penetrative mind discerned from what he has seen and what inference has he made? What is the object of ἐπίστευσεν, which he purposefully left unwritten, in order to stir contemplative powers of the readers also? It is totally coarse and base interpretation that he just believed what Mary Magdalene has told them; but not only coarse and base, but objectively wrong also, because the empirical fact that Jesus' body was taken away John saw already before Peter's arrival, so there was nothing there to believe in, for he saw with his own two eyes that what Mary has told them was right! The ἐπίστευσεν follows this, so there is a hiatus, a lapse of time, a couple of minutes perhaps, between the βλέπει and ἐπίστευσεν. So, what had John been thinking about while waiting for Peter, and what inference could he make after having seen the linens and the kerchief (σουδάριον)?

Look: there was nobody among Jesus' followers who could steal His body, for everybody was afraid of association with Him, a political criminal, and even if such a super audacious guy would have appeared to dare such a feat as to steal the body of Jesus in front of the Roman guards, such a guy would have come from the closest circle of Jesus, but all of them were hiding in such a fear as even to lock doors (John 20:19), so it was excluded. Jews could not steal Him, for it was absolutely not in their interests; on the contrary, this would have played right into the hands of Jesus' followers, for they could say that He resurrected, and the "last deception would be worse than the first" (Matt 27:64); Romans could not take Him away either, for they were commissioned to protect the body by the Procurator himself. Moreover, even if one would fancy about a super-hero who could venture stealing the body, even such a super-hero in such a dangerous context would have stolen the body in a big haste, that is to say, necessarily taking the body together with the linens in which it was wrapped and together with the kerchief, for to lose perhaps as much as an hour in untying the oil-soaked sticky linens and then even care about laying them apart and bend tidily the kerchief would make even such a super-hero a complete idiot!

Such thoughts must have come to John when he saw what he saw, with the necessary inference expressed by the verb εἶδεν, which applies only to John and not Peter, and the εἶδεν* is different from βλέπει, for the second expressed just the seeing of the empirical fact, whereas the fist the contemplative understanding and vision by the mind's eye that no other inference from the seen could be driven, but that the Lord has resurrected, and this is what he believed, and the "believed" ἐπίστευσεν refers only to John and not to Peter, who did not contemplate about this at that moment. (* That in John the verb εἶδεν can be used in the meaning of non-physical vision is seen also in John 1:48, when Jesus tells Nathanael that He "saw (εἶδον) him under a fig tree", which was not physically visible from there, that is to say, in this εἶδον Jesus implied that He knew what Nathanael was thinking in his heart under the fig tree, and that explains the response of Nathanael, who affirms Jesus' divinity "Rabbi, your are the Son of God" (John 1:49), for only God can see, i.e. know the heart of man.)

Thus, one can observe a logic of ascent in John from a) seeing the fact that Jesus' body was not there (βλέπει); to b) seeing by mind's eye, that is to say, contemplating the impossibility of any other solution than that the Lord has resurrected (εἶδεν); and, ultimately, c) believing, that is to say, making an emotional or rather devotional self-committment to the light of the truth revealed through the contemplation (ἐπίστευσεν), for any belief not based on the light of contemplation or the voice of conscience - the two being the same - is at worst blind and at best unperfected faith.

Now, the phrase that "they did not yet understand the Scripture that it was due for Him to resurrect from dead", means that before that moment they did not know it, but from this moment onwards John has believed in it, and through him also Peter, just as it happened in the mentioned passage describing the fishing affair, when Peter knew from John that the man at the shore was the resurrected Lord Himself.

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    Incognito downvoter, dear, downvote as many times as you wish, most welcome! But, please, discuss also, for it is not interesting so! Moreover, if you think I am mistaken in such serious matters, is not it even your noble obligation to indicate to me my mistake and help me out of it? Feb 21, 2018 at 8:38
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    I did not downvote your answer, but find it fails to address issues the text raises. Your reasoning is not necessarily wrong but I find it mostly speculation which discounts what is written. The two disciples went to their "own homes." Yet nowhere are we told they told others (highly unlikely). If the text is taken literally, the two men also said nothing to Mary who they left behind at the tomb. Finally, if the disciple is John and if he believed as you reason, then his choice to identify himself as the disciple loved ἐφίλει not loved ἠγάπα requires an explanation. Feb 23, 2018 at 14:42
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    Thus, that John communicated his discovery based on the dialectical thought on the plain facts, and the resultant sincere faith to Peter and Mary Magdalene is a side question and has not much to do with my main say: it must be excluded on the textual basis that "John believed just in what Mary told them", for before he "believed", it is written, that few minutes prior to this believing he already has got fully convinced through his own two eyes (βλέπει) that what Mary had said was correct. Thus, it is impossible that "ἐπίστευσεν" that happened few minutes later could refer to this information. Feb 23, 2018 at 15:22
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    Moreover, even Peter does not see any difference, proven by the fact that a) he is saddened by thinking that Jesus said three times in row φιλεῖς με (21:17), and b) even more clearly, by the fact that when Jesus asks him "ἀγαπᾷς με;", Peter answers "ναί, κύριε, ... φιλῶ σε", had he seen a difference in meanings he would have answered "οὔ, κύριε, μὴ ἀγάπω σε, ἀλλὰ φιλῶ σε", which is absurd! Feb 23, 2018 at 16:12
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    P.s. please do not judge too harsh some my rhetorical exaggerations and harshnesses, if any; sometimes my fingers outrun my restraints of courtesy, and sorry if I in any manner was indiscreet, but I spoke out what I believe to be true. Feb 23, 2018 at 18:20

Bottom line: It is ambiguous. There is no certain answer here. There is a long history of various interpretations. The text itself does not provide a "clear" answer no matter how you want to parse it.

If you'd like a really great detailed read "The Beloved Disciple" by James Charlesworth from 1995. It's probably the best analysis of the whole thing. He spends about 50 pages carefully digging into the history of this.

Great minds from Augustine to Luther to Wesley read it as "believing what Mary told them, that the tomb was empty." NOT resurrection belief. They see the force of verse 20:9 necessarily demanding that they don't know.

Bultmann, the 20th century 800lb gorilla of Johannine studies, recognized the force of 20:9, and so he decided it was a late gloss, and preferred to cut it out such that 20:8 was resurrection belief. But, if true, what that means is that a very early scribe that is universally attested added a comment to clarify his interpretation of the ambiguous verse 20:8 such that it would describe merely believing that the tomb was empty.

The Codex Bezae contains a variation at exactly this verse where it says "and saw and did not believe." That's clearly a minor attestation, but also someone trying to clarify in favor of empty tomb belief in the 5th century.

A major reason for forcing the "resurrection belief" conclusion is that otherwise, the beloved disciple leaves the narrative without professing belief. That's problematic if John (son of Zebedee, or anyone else) is the witness of the gospel. It seems like the disciple should be the first to believe or that his belief should be declared somewhere in his gospel.

Charlesworth solves this problem by identifying Thomas as the Beloved Disciple. In this way, Thomas (as the BD) provides a validation of the woman's testimony by two male voices in 20:8-9, and then at the end of the chapter, as Thomas explicitly, declares his belief and makes the most stunning identification of the entire gospel. And by being shown as "hard to believe the disciples claims" (e.g. doubting thomas), he is then shown to be an incredulous witness who is hard to convince. Someone reliable.

Some try to connect John 20:29, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." to 20:8. There is a sense that the BD believed without actually seeing Jesus. I don't buy this. Verse 20:8 literally says "and he SAW and BELIEVED..." his belief was based on seeing evidence. It couldn't be further from the claim in v29 which I believe is targeted at later generations of community members who simply could not be part of the events described in the gospel. All of the disciples "saw and believed." It seems to me that v29 is a fourth wall break kind of like Puck at the end of Midsummer Night's Dream. First Jesus talks to Thomas "you have believed because you have seen" (that is, he is an eye-witness and Jesus' words validate it).

After that, Jesus looks off into the distance, speaking to future readers "happy/blessed are those who believe without seeing these things." Then the narrator DIRECTLY addresses the reader in verse 30-31 using the second person.

Belief, in John, is a process. The verb "to believe" is used 96 times and the noun, so often used in Paul, is completely absent. If the gospel is a witness account designed to help you believe, then the idea that the story tells a careful progressively witnessed narrative that concludes with Thomas' declaration "my lord and my god," after being shown to be hard to convince, is pretty sound.

But again, all of this, as with most biblical studies, is speculative. There is no dative phrase following the word for belief. The contents of verse 9, that they didn't know the scriptures, is an extreme challenge for any claim to resurrection belief (though people wiggle around it).

A final note that is convincing to me: If the Beloved Disciple had believed in the resurrection of Christ, why did he and Peter merely return to their homes? How could they leave Mary weeping? Why not console her with the news?! That doesn't sound like a compassionate action of a fellow disciple. Why didn't they run and tell everyone?

Also, Charlesworth makes the fascinating argument that the reason that Thomas only appears "after 8 days" (20:26), is because, as the BD, he entered the tomb and became ritually impure according to Numbers 19:16 for seven days after the first. After 8 days, corresponds to exactly when Thomas would be purified and able to return to the group. But only if he acted as the Beloved disciple in the beginning of chapter 20. If that is your theory, then 20:8 must be "empty tomb" belief validating each phase of the resurrection.

First he validates the crucifixion and the death with the spear. )(Joseph and Nicodemus validate the burial). Second he validates the empty tomb. Finally, he validates the resurrection. If he had validated the burial, then he would have been unclean for the visit to the tomb with Mary on the third day.

Ultimately, however, what the BD believed will be up to you, the reader, and the interpretive "gap filling" theory that you bring to the text. Plenty of people have seen either full resurrection belief, the weak seed of resurrection belief (e.g. John Calvin), or belief in what Mary said.

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