Context and Scholars

This coming Sunday is the Third Sunday of Easter in Lectionary Cycle C. Our gospel describes the Apostle’s encounter with Jesus at the Sea of Tiberias. These verses are from the final chapter in the Gospel according to John. Immediately preceding this chapter are these verses: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of (his) disciples that are not written in this book.  But these are written that you may (come to) believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31) 

Such are the closing verses at the end of the so-called “Doubting Thomas” narrative of John’s gospel (“Believing Thomas” is the better #hashtag). It reads as a great ending to the whole gospel. That is why many scholars argue that John 21 is an addition to an original Gospel version that concluded at the end of John 20. But the problem with that view is that John 21 is found in every ancient manuscript of the Gospel that we possess and, if it was appended, must have been appended almost with the original publication of the work.

Scholars offer two basic grounds for considering John 21 an added epilogue: “(1) John 20:30–31 brings the Gospel to a close, and (2) Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances in John 21 introduce an ecclesial focus that is secondary and anticlimactic to the concerns of John 1–20.” [O’Day, 854 citing the view of others]  But then such an opinion seems somewhat circular. Their “decision about the status of chap. 21 is largely based on how it fits scholars’ theological preconceptions about how the Gospel of John should end. Beasley-Murray, for example, writes that John 21 ‘has an emphasis on the situation of the Church and its leaders beyond anything in the body of the Gospel.’” [O’Day, op.cit] That presupposes that Jesus had no intention of anything/one taking up his earthly ministry in any way/shape/form – which seems an odd position in the light of John 14-17. A more supportable position (it seems to me) is that John 21 is placed exactly where it needs to be with a focus on the ecclesial dimensions at the start of the church’s mission. O’Day [854-55] nicely outlines such a view:

There is a distinction between the focus of John 20 and that of John 21, but it is a distinction that is integral to the scope and movement of the Gospel narrative. In 20:1–31, the narrative and theological focus rests on the completion of Jesus’ glorification. Thomas’s proclamation, “My Lord and my God” (20:28), signals the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer of 17:1–5; Jesus is glorified in God’s presence. But Jesus’ prayer at his hour looks beyond his own glorification to the future life of the believing community (17:6–26), and the stories of John 21 point explicitly to that future. It is inaccurate, therefore, to state that John 21:1–25 introduces ecclesial concerns that are not integral to the Gospel. In John 16:2–3, for example, Jesus predicted the future persecution and martyrdom of members of the community, predictions that are revisited in the stories of Peter and the beloved disciple in 21:15–24. Throughout chaps. 13–17, Jesus spoke of his hopes and promises for the life of the faith community (e.g., 14:12; 15:12–27; 17:17–18, 20; cf. 19:26–27), and John 21:1–25 offers a narrative conclusion to those hopes.

In addition to the narrative and theological flow, John 21 is tied to the previous chapters by a host of literary and theological links. Johannine characteristics found in this chapter are the

  • Sea of Tiberias (v.1; near the site of the miraculous feeding of John 6:1-14);
  • names of Simon Peter, Thomas the Twin, Nathanael from Cana in v.2;
  • night-day contrast of vv. 3–4;
  • lack of recognition in v.4;
  • Beloved Disciple of v.7, who relates to Peter and who first recognizes the Lord;
  • charcoal fire of v.9, together with the image of Jesus as servant and giver of bread to the disciples;
  • reference in v.14 to two previous appearances (in ch. 20);
  • Peter’s triple profession (vv. 15–17) to counterbalance the triple denial and to reintroduce the shepherd theme (ch. 10);
  • glorifying aspect of Peter’s death in v.19;
  • reference to the Beloved Disciple’s position next to Jesus at the Last Supper in v.20.

If not John himself, then this was added by an expert in John’s thought — surely by one of his disciples, and by one thoroughly conversant with the Gospel material. If this chapter is an addition, it is nonetheless a beautiful addition, and the Christian community would be considerably poorer without it.

Apart from all scholarly opinion, John 21 is part of the canonical Gospel according to John.

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