JOHN 20 – 21: In My End is My Beginning

 Like a Ghost

Piero della Francesca, 15thC

Piero della Francesca, 15thC

rick pacific crop 3RICHARD McKIM   5/2/14
One reason the Thomas story stands out among post-resurrection appearances is that it presumes that Jesus was physically there, a recognizable flesh-and-blood body. Not so with other accounts. I wrote the other day about trying to find some sense in which one could believe that the resurrection “really happened” without having to believe that it physically happened, which would fly in the face of everything science now knows about the physical world. This morning it strikes me that the gospels provide quite a bit of support for such a quest.

Take the strange recurrent motif that those who saw the risen Jesus failed to recognize him. Setting aside Mark’s spurious second ending, we might read the other evangelists as preserving traces of an original truth — that those who “saw” him did not see a physical body.

Road to Emmaus, Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, 6thC

Road to Emmaus, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, 6thC

At John 20:14 Mary Magdalene mistakes him for the gardener, seeing that he’s Jesus only once he has spoken to her. On the road to Emmaus in Luke, all the way to the end of the meal that evening (24:16-31), the disciples don’t recognize him even though he engages them in lengthy conversation. They see him for who he is only at the very moment when he disappears, like a ghost. Likewise at his second appearance in Luke (24:37) he startles and scares them by appearing all of a sudden “like a pneuma“, a spirit. Even in Matthew, where the women recognize him right away on his first appearance (28:9), the disciples are split in their reaction when he later appears to them — “some bowed down to him, but others doubted” (28:17). How to explain the doubters except by inferring that some disciples experienced a spiritual epiphany vivid enough to inspire conviction, while others were underwhelmed by theirs, or experienced none at all?

These passages all suggest mystical rather than physical vision. Subsequent episodes in all three gospels, where Jesus does appear physically, may be embellishments in response to a felt need to believe in a physical rather than “merely” mystical resurrection. My reading of the Thomas story fits right in here, as an episode invented to meet this need — Jesus’ invitation to probe his wounds means he’s physically there — while at the same time encouraging Christians to believe that the resurrection “really happened” despite a lack of proof that it happened physically. Don’t be like Thomas by demanding such proof — Jesus blesses those who believe without it. Even Thomas doesn’t need it in the end. “Seeing” is believing, no touching required.

Of course, there’s still the empty tomb staring us in the face. But I remain intrigued by the bribing of the guards in Matthew, who says that the Jewish authorities paid them to tell everyone that the disciples stole the body — “and this is the story that is spread among the Ioudaioi to this day”.

What if the real reason for the currency of that story was that it was true? What if the fabricators were not the guards but Jesus’ followers? This need not be inconsistent with a belief that he “really” rose from the dead, if we take “really” in the mystical rather than the physical sense. The women and the disciples believed that they really saw the risen Jesus in their mystical visions. For them, his resurrection was no lie. But somebody felt the need to steal the body because an empty tomb seemed the only way to “prove” to the rest of the world that the resurrection had really happened. I’m now backpedaling from my own contention that “reality” had wider horizons in ancient times than it does for us, but even then it must have seemed to most folks that the only sense of “really” in which someone can be resurrected from the dead is the physical one.

bill berg photo crop 1WILLIAM BERG  5/3/14
It’s been decades since I read it, but I still recall the prisoners in Borges’s Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius  to whom the archaeologists showed good clear illustrations of what they were expected to dig up, and, by golly, the excavation was successful! What I’m about to say springs from my perennial interest in comparative religion, and is not in any way meant to trivialize or dismiss the very real and important concerns you raise (and I’m grateful that you share them so candidly):

Christ reveals himself at Emmaus, Caravaggio, 17thC

Christ reveals himself at Emmaus, Caravaggio, 17thC

Until last year, there had been, since the early ’80s, a “24-hour Church of Elvis” not 75 miles from me. I know there have been, and probably still are, other such churches of Elvis, as well as thousands of “Elvis sightings” over the years. Paul mentions a mass “Jesus sighting” (500 people at once!) which he cites as evidence of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:6. Surely not all of those were associated with the sort of seizure that occasioned Paul’s own experience. Enough belief, enough yearning seems to be all it takes for a “sighting,” whether of Elvis or Jesus or the idol of your choice, ancient or modern.

The point is, it’s not “really” (in scientific terms) out there, it’s in you. It’s in Mary. The stronger your faith/trust, the more substantial it appears. I may or may not believe in that light. It may or may not be in me, too. I may not be naming it, or calling it by the “right” name. Sects seem to arise around the idea of naming it “correctly,” externalizing it, worshiping it, maybe even maiming or killing themselves or others for it. Does it matter if I have a name for it or not, or get the name “right”? And does all that have anything to do with trying to be a decent human being? Good lord, look at all those quotation marks!

On the word “really”: Bill, I was trying to imagine a meaning that was not “scientific” but still “out there”  — not merely (subjectively) “in you”. (Quotation marks are contagious!) Your remarks on Mary and the gardener in 20:16 — he says simply “Mary”, and she replies “Rabbi!”, instantly recognizing his signature call — put me in mind of George Herbert’s “The Collar”, where he spends most of the poem describing his hapless attempts to rebel against God, then concludes: But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild / At every word, / Methought I heard one calling, Child! / And I replied My Lord.

Resurrection & ascension, Milan or Rome, circa 400 AD

Resurrection & ascension, Milan or Rome, circa 400 AD

I take your skeptical point about such epiphanies, agree that Paul’s 500 give the church of Elvis a run for its money. But I remain benighted by my demand for something “out there” (shades of Thomas!). A vision or intuition of the divine that’s merely the product of my own “yearning” isn’t good enough for me. I don’t trust myself enough to think that my subjective experience has any validity as “real” in any sense that could satisfy that yearning. That’s why Christianity appeals to me, makes me want to believe even if I can’t. Like its brother Judaism, but reaching outward to everyone, it claims to be a faith based on things that really happened.

To me, to be a Christian would be to trust that the resurrection is (in some sense) a historical fact, independently of whether or not I believe it (or want to believe it). Hence my search for some meaning of “really” that qualifies, without requiring a creationist-style refusal to credit science.

Bill asks what any of this has to do “with trying to be a decent human being”. To return to a refrain from my comments on Mark, my answer is nothing. Religious people have no monopoly on decency — statistics would probably favor atheists. Nobody needs God (by whatever name) for that. Those who need God need him for redemption. Christianity — John above all — presents Jesus as the (only) intermediary who can offer you a redemptive relationship to God. But, as Paul says in effect, if there’s no resurrection, then Christian faith and preaching are pointless, gospels included.

My difficulty with rejecting Christianity once & for all is that it seems to leave me entirely dependent on subjective, nameless, formless intuitions conditioned by my personal needs. You suggest, Bill, that we should rest content with this sort of nameless interior light, and I’m pretty sure yours is the wiser state of spirit — the one that Wallace Stevens evokes in “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”, where he pictures a candlelit evening in which “being there together is enough.”

Nottingham alabaster, 14thC

Nottingham alabaster, 14thC

I don’t know where my petulant “No, it’s not enough!” feeling comes from, but I want my light to illuminate something other than my own interior — to have, if not a name, then at least some content rooted out there. Without that, the light is always clouded by my suspicion that it’s mere subjectivity, with no roots in what’s real, like wishful thinking. Of course, all forms of faith can be dismissed as wishful thinking. The unique claim of Christianity is that something happened in history that supplies the missing content, that validates faith in something objective and specific — for everyone who feels the need to seek it, not just for me.

If the resurrection is not a “real” event but just a metaphor for what allegedly happens in me if I “believe in” Jesus — well, then I don’t know what there’s left of him to believe in. Love thy neighbor? Be kind to children? If Christianity is reducible to a bunch of moral maxims, we may as well just try to be decent human beings & have done with it.

BERG    5/4/14
Damn, I worship Stevens! “Final Soliloquy” — an amazing poem. Believe it or not, I hadn’t seen it before. Will reread and reread. Thanks, Rick!

When I awoke from my Catholic upbringing and from what I call “the nightmare of religion,” I experienced an exhilarating feeling of relief and joy in being alive. My outlook toward myself and others changed as well. I discovered beauty where I hadn’t seen it before. (Right, describing the experience seems to cheapen it, like talking about one’s first joint.) My attitude toward things like personal needs changed and to some extent turned outward, and I began to see more beauty in, and feel more sympathy for, my fellow beings. So relationships of all kinds were allowed to become less arbitrary, more meaningful. Sure, I was now entirely on my own, but found the ground under my feet surprisingly solid. But maybe that’s all just a function of having grown up Catholic. Maybe growing up Protestant is more hangup-free, more liberating, more intellectually healthy in the first place?

Illuminated parchment, Spain, 10thC

Illuminated parchment, Spain, 10thC

As for “redemption” … Rick, this is really getting interesting. Maybe you can begin to enlighten me after a lifetime of puzzlement over the meaning of that word. I’ve never been clear on what I was being redeemed from, and what the premise was for the need for my redemption. The concept was of course drilled into me as a kid, but the only answer I ever got to my question had something to do with “original sin,” in which I can’t claim to have had a part, though it does sound like fun. Later, I found Paul harping on “redemption” based on the ugliness of the Old Testament, starting from Adam’s misdemeanor, with the crucified Jesus being a “down payment” (as he calls it) on a reconciliation of at least (for starters) the Jewish people with the bearded gent upstairs. A definite overtone of collective guilt, and not terribly helpful. So what’s the positive spin on redemption?

McKIM   5/6/14
Well, you asked for it! To take redemption seriously you have to take original sin seriously too. I have my work cut out for me here, talking to a guy who claims no part in it but thinks it sounds like fun! Adam and Eve are always good for a laugh if we take Genesis literally, but as a parable or metaphor for the human condition their story seems to me profound.

The fun didn’t start with eating the apple. It ended. Pre-apple Adam & Eve frolic naked in the garden, enjoying the beauty of being, having great sex without shame. (Nothing in Genesis says they didn’t, and what else are they going to do? Play chess?) They’re even immortal — God makes them subject to death only as post-apple punishment. But the fun depends on their ignorance of “the knowledge of good and evil.” Pre-apple, they know only good, in the sense that God uses that word for his whole creation. But for us binary-minded creatures “good” has no meaning except as the opposite of evil. So, like Joni Mitchell, Adam & Eve don’t know what they’ve got till it’s gone — they don’t know what good means till that darn apple gives them a taste of evil.

Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily, 12thC

Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily, 12thC

The knowledge of evil is twofold, I think: (1) of evil meaning sin, what it’s like to desire and commit it; and (2) of evil meaning suffering, what it’s like to feel it. God punishes them for the first with plenty of the second — not only death and shame but dust, sweat, thorns, thistles. Even to give birth will be to suffer.

God gives them every reason to be grateful and only one simple rule to obey, and yet perversely they can’t resist the temptation to be disobedient ingrates. What’s the point of this parable? Human beings are by nature deeply flawed and inevitably do wrong, even or especially when there’s no excuse for it. In Christian lingo, we’re all born sinners. In fact, we’re so flawed that there’s nothing we can do (not even anything we can suffer) that’s weighty enough to redeem us from our self-inflicted fall. The only one powerful enough to redeem such hopeless cases is God. Luckily, God so loves us that he did just that — took a deep breath, mustered all his mercy, and paid the price for our redemption himself. In Trinitarian language, he sacrificed his only son on our behalf. God, in the person of the Son, willingly becomes a human being so as to undergo a terrible human death — a sacrifice of infinite magnitude, so that no amount of human sin can outweigh its redemptive power.

Rubens / Jan Bruegel, 17thC

Rubens / Jan Bruegel, 17thC

There are various theoretical spins on this scenario. For example, ransom theory (Origen/Irenaeus): human sin has made us quite rightly possessions of Satan, and Christ’s death is ransom paid by the Father to Satan, the only ransom steep enough that Satan can rightly release us — a theory that even the Catholic Encyclopedia calls “startling if not revolting.” Then there’s the satisfaction theory: Sin makes us justly subject to death, but a loving God wants to give us eternal life anyway, so he has to sacrifice his son, whose death is worth all of ours put together, in order to give us that life while still satisfying the demands of Justice. Somewhat legalistic, to be kind. A variant on this is substitution theory: Out of love for us, God has his own Son do all the suffering for our sins, thus relieving us of the obligation.

Ladder of Divine Ascent, St Catherine's monastery, Egypt, 12thC

Ladder of Divine Ascent, St Catherine’s monastery, Egypt, 12thC

Personally, I’m with Bill in rebelling against this whole tradition. God can forgive all the sinners he wants to in the end — very nice of him — but meanwhile our punishment seems out of proportion to our offense. What we really need redemption from is not our sins but our suffering. Bill, you appear to be of the party that says “life is good, enjoy it while it lasts,” without any of Keats’s “irritable reaching” after more. Admirably wise and realistic, given the total absence of evidence for believing in anything more. And yet this carpe diem attitude bothers me as a luxury that only the privileged few of us can afford. For the rest, this life involves so much injustice and suffering that it makes no sense on its own, if human beings are suffering and dying in a void. Reason and morality both demand that there ought to be a higher order within which everything does make sense in the end, where injustice is righted, where suffering is revealed to be meaningful and worthwhile, where all the cruelty, agony, unfairness, wastefulness of this life are … redeemed. Nothing short of eternal life seems adequate to that gargantuan job.

How on earth anyone could be justified in believing that life is obliged to meet this demand, I have no idea. And yet this seems to me Christianity’s signature theme — redemption, or call it salvation, comes through human suffering that somehow leads to the light. It’s the same theme that rings through Greek tragedy from the Oresteia to Oedipus at Colonus, the one we found in Mark, and the one that John ruins with his non-suffering, essentially non-human Jesus.

Rick, I’ve searched high and low for something I might have said to give you the impression that I’m in the carpe diem camp. A fairer characterization of my “party” might be that it says “a life of dignity and significance is good — the only kind of life that can truly be enjoyed.” Carpe diem is not relevant to that life; the Sermon on the Mount is. My “party” makes an active attempt, within its capacity for doing so, to alleviate that “injustice and suffering” that so vexes you, and to do so as efficiently as possible without wasting time agonizing over “redemption” or “eternal life” (still mysterious to me, despite your noble efforts to expound) or over the (unlikely) possibility that the suffering has been “meaningful and worthwhile.”  We don’t need everything to “make sense in the end.” We’re happy enough to stop, or at least lessen, the pain right now.

The Double Ending

Peter denies knowing Jesus, Caravaggio, 17thC

Peter denies knowing Jesus, Caravaggio, 17thC

CONNOR    5/8/14
At the end of John things that appeared earlier reappear. Nicodemus, for example, returns to help with Jesus’ body, and in a climate of fear. Likewise, the metaphorical shepherding of ch. 10 returns in the conversation with the still-wet-from-his-swim Peter in 21.16 ff. Now it’s no longer “it’s all about me” as it was in ch. 10. It’s still metaphoric, but straightforward too. And not in the “if/then” mode that we might expect (“If you really  love me, then you will  tend my sheep.”). Instead Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him (using two different verbs for love, ἀγαπᾶν and φιλεῖν), and Peter doesn’t say the obvious, “I screwed up, denied you, can you ever forgive me?” He says “You know I do.” Talk about trust! And Peter can play the double-verb game, too — οἶδας twice for “You know I do” in 21:15-16, then again for “You know all things” before a final “You know I do” in 21:17, using a different knowledge verb, γινώσκεις.

Then Jesus tells the fisherman to change jobs, become a shepherd (a step up into the hills and a step down the social ladder). Again, two different verbs: “Shepherd the flock” and “Feed them”. The metaphors are straightforward, expressed in imperatives, not parables to be untangled (or a complicated, extended multivalent metaphor as in 10). Whew! He lays it on the line. What a relief.

McKIM   5/9/14
Why do I find so little skepticism out there about the second ending of John, when Mark’s second is so widely and roundly dismissed?

I understand (1) that the style of chapter 21 is judged by those who know these things to be consistent enough with the rest, and (2) that there’s only one manuscript (4thC Sahidic, discovered 2006) that “may end” with 20. But on grounds of content, the tacked-on nature of 21 seems pretty glaring to me. Chapter 20 makes such a strong ending. First, there’s the magnificent rightness of the doubting Thomas episode as the last word. Then there’s 20:30-31, as plainly a final flourish as any coda could be. Finally, there’s the narrative content of 21 itself.

Jesus on the Tiberian shore, Cathedral Monreale, Sicily, 12thC

Jesus on the Tiberian shore, Cathedral Monreale, Sicily, 12thC

The very things that inspire Bob’s enthusiasm for 21 are the things I find, well, fishy. They seem to me a rehash of points already made and of things John left out that somebody else wanted in. The whole disciples-as-fishermen motif, for one. Jesus stands on the beach instead of walking on the water but the magical-powers motif is the same, and the water-walk is specifically recalled when Peter goes floundering in the water by contrast. Then the fish breakfast recalling the loaves-and-fishes miracle. Then a belated nod to the Eucharist, missing from the main text, when Jesus “takes the bread” and passes it around. Seems as if someone’s trying to remedy that omission. Likewise, the exchange with Peter seems a tacked-on remedy for the lack of any “on this rock”-style authorization of the Bishop of Rome. The three “I love you”‘s correspond all too neatly to the three denials, canceling them out as it were — while avoiding any embarrassing mention of them.

Then there’s what I suspect to be the main motivation for the addendum — to claim that (1) the beloved disciple himself wrote this book, and that (2) he’s at least as great a disciple as Peter even though he didn’t get crucified as Peter did. I take (2) to be the point of Jesus’ (rather obscure) response to Peter’s somewhat petulant question “What about him?” (“What makes him so all-fired beloved? He won’t be suffering for you as I will!”) Of course, we could argue that John himself wrote this bit as self-justification. But the third-person mode of the claim seems to me out of tune with that notion. More likely, some acolyte of our author’s anti-Baptist sect added it on to claim the beloved disciple as the sect’s founder and its gospel’s author, and to assert that its gospel is therefore more authoritative than the others.

Finally, there’s the second coda (21:25) — a grossly hyperbolic and pointless rewrite of 20:30, without the added grace note of 20:31, which is as perfect a closing thought as one could ask for from a deeply flawed author who nevertheless had the good sense to stop there.

Martyrdom of St Peter, Caravaggio, 17thC

Martyrdom of St Peter, Caravaggio, 17thC

BERG   5/10/14
Everyone seems to “get” that Jesus’ three-time demand for an affirmation of Peter’s love refers to Peter’s triple denial of Jesus in the courtyard, though no one allows that three times is also a ritual and folkloric standard. Then there’s the “love” verb issue, agapas vs. phileis, in 21:15-17. Jesus uses agapas the first two times he asks if Peter loves him, but Peter refuses to use that verb, preferring philo. The third time, Jesus himself relents and uses phileis. Some commentators claim there’s no real difference, that the author is simply employing verbal variation. Others claim to see significance, “divine” love vs. “human” love. I suspect there may be some sort of joshing going on here that’s lost on us now. In any case, “good times around the campfire” remind me of the sometimes lighthearted tone of the latter part of chapter 1. In fact, I suggest that we’re back with the same author here, the composer rounding out the entire work with a patch from his favorite (I hope) narrator.

Rick raises an interesting point about the ending(s) of John. My hunch is that, since ancient manuscripts were difficult to revise, writers tended to tack second thoughts or new observations onto the end. Sounds like John in his old age home on Patmos, hearing of Peter’s death, added a couple of reminiscences of him.

Some people seem to have trouble with the third-person style — “the disciple Jesus loved,” etc.  That seems to me just a twist of the genre. The genre demands anonymity, as one can see in Mark. But John is anything but a modest registering machine, esp. in the last chapters.  So he keeps referring to himself in the third person. That pushes the boundaries of the gospel genre. The unsuspecting think this is a sign of redaction, editorial addition or another author reporting a tradition loosely associated with John. I am content with the disciple writing, revising, and messing up his own ms.

McKIM   5/11/14
Point taken about the third-person tradition for authorial self-reference, but at John 21:24 the author says that the beloved disciple “is the one who bears witness to these things and who wrote them up, and we know (οἴδαμεν) that his witness is true.” The use of “we” clearly shows that, even if John wrote the rest of the book, he didn’t write this verse. Somebody else is claiming he wrote the book on behalf of a “we” who sound to me like some sort of sect with a vested interest. The third-person reference to John is straightforwardly to a third person.

John on Patmos, vellum, Netherlands, 16thC

John on Patmos, vellum, Netherlands, 16thC

I think it’s reasonable to suppose that the other references to the beloved disciple in this gospel are of the same type. Our author(s) may be trying to give the impression that John is referring to himself in a traditional third-person way, but I see no reason to trust him/them. It’s leaning on a very slender reed to rest any interpretation of the text on such trust — especially on the notion that our author is actually the beloved disciple and therefore an “eyewitness”, as Bob seems to assume by picturing of good old John reminiscing about Peter on Patmos.

We’ve slugged it out on the eyewitness issue in Mark. I remain a total skeptic — I don’t think any of the four gospels was written by an eyewitness to anything in them, and doubt very much that any of their authors bore the names that their gospels are kata. Remember, Bob, your own skeptical insights into the authorial puzzle embodied in that word?

CONNOR   5/12/14
OK, like Homer or Shakespeare — written by another person of the same name at the same time. Except in this case not of the same name, and presumably of a much later time. So be it. But what am I buying into if I agree? How does it affect our reading of the text? Does it just push the text off to a time so remote from events that we can dismiss it in whole or in part, or use our own idea of probability to construct an alternative version?

“How does it affect our reading of the text?” Bob, I think it leaves us right where John’s Jesus would want us — challenged to believe without solid evidence, to have faith without sufficient reason, to trust in the gospels even though, for all we know, they may well be untrustworthy, and even though “this world” of ours is so sure that they are (and for good reason!).

Am I up to this challenge? Do I believe in a Jesus with the authority to issue it? Do I even think that accepting it is an honest option in the 21st century? Sad to say, but reading John has only deepened my chronic ambivalence on these questions.

That’s important and now I see where you are coming from. I too have felt attrition in reading John, though much less so in the ending — those weird post-crucifixion appearances, the fingers in the wound, the fish on the fire. John is supposed to be the eagle  among the evangelists, soaring high etc. I like it a lot better when he comes down to earth.

But “like” is not the issue. I’m not even sure “belief” is. The Greek ΠΙΣΤΙΣ is more like “trust” than like “belief” or “intellectual acceptance.”

Mary Magdalene announces resurrection to disciples, St Albans  psalter, England, 12thC

Mary Magdalene announces resurrection to disciples, St Albans psalter, England, 12thC

BERG   5/14/14
Belief is certainly the watchword for Chapter 20, full of the miraculous, harking back to the ultimate miracle in the exordium, the victory of light over darkness. When Mary mistakes the resurrected Jesus for a gardener and asks him “Where have you put him?”, the resurrected Jesus answers “Mary,” and she suddenly sees him for who he is. The whole chapter is about light in action, a lesson in faith, underscored in John’s sign-off at the end of chapter 20: “I’ve written this so that you might believe … and have life in his name” (ταῦτα δὲ γέγραπται ἵνα πιστεύσητε ὅτι Ἰησοῦς ἐστιν ὁ Χριστὸς ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ, καὶ ἵνα πιστεύοντες ζωὴν ἔχητε ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι αὐτοῦ) — apparently a deliberate echo of 1:12, “He gave the power to become children of God to those who believe in his name” (ὅσοι δὲ ἔλαβον αὐτόν, ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς ἐξουσίαν τέκνα θεοῦ γενέσθαι, τοῖς πιστεύουσιν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ). The light of the world (as Jesus calls himself in 9:5) triumphs over darkness and illuminates every human being. But his response is also a response to her yearning, conditioned on her belief (or “trust,” as Bob would have it) — the same condition insisted upon in 1:12 and 20:31.

But this gospel isn’t done yet. After chapter 20 comes 21: an “epilogue”?  I think we’re all agreed that 21 seems “tacked on”, but perhaps more meaningfully than the clumsy final verses of Mark.  As we reach the end, I see John’s gospel more and more as a “purposeful patchwork.” Not a pastiche of apophthegms and anecdotes loosely strung together, but a decidedly meaningful arrangement of material lifted pretty much wholesale from a pre-existing body of written, and maybe oral, material. I think one could make a pretty good case, based on both stylistic and contextual evidence, that a number of narrative episodes (not just the beginning of ch. 8), even portions of the perennial rants, have been inserted — but meaningfully inserted — from earlier sources.

peter fish Duccio 14thThe more I look at it, the more it seems to me that John 21 mirrors the function of the narrative following the exordium in chapter 1. There, we were awakened from the dream of light to find ourselves milling with the devout on the banks of the Jordan, overhearing intense conversations and intensive interrogations among just plain folks. All very real and very human, around four in the afternoon. Pinch me. Likewise, right after that echo of 1:12 at the end of 20, we wake up to the smell of fish frying, a campfire, and a guy standing on the shore yelling what you still hear on both sides of the Aegean, Ρε παιδιά, μήπως πιάσατε κανά ψάρια; — “Hey guys, got any fish?” —only more archaic, Παιδία, μή τι προσφάγιον ἔχετε;  It’s again all very real, even to the catch. Go ahead and count them: exactly 153 fish. Now let’s eat. And speak again in paroimiai, metaphors, riddles. There’s got to be some jesting, some kidding here, just as there was with our first meeting with the disciples back in chapter 1.

Bob, count me in on your “hunch” about commentary appearing in the body of the text rather than in the margins. It’s just that I think it’s almost as easy to crease and tear a scroll midway, attaching a new text, as it is to glue a new scrap to the end of a scroll. (And you’ll probably have to count me among the “unsuspecting” on the issue of the “author’s” identity, though the composer of John certainly seems to be heir to a tradition, perhaps a whole community, associated with “the beloved disciple.” I’ll run with Rick on that score.)

Good stuff. I especially like the analogy to chapter 1, where we wake from the dream and find ourselves on the banks of the Jordan.

Still, 21 does seem to declare itself an epilogue, deliberately tacked on. Why? One possibility is that it’s an attempt to reconcile the conflicting post-crucifixion traditions by juxtaposing them: the Paul/Luke version that has the disciples holed up in a Jerusalem attic, versus the Matthew version that brings them directly home to Galilee. Mark, as I suggested, was unable to perform that reconciliation convincingly and left his gospel therefore unfinished. Certainly John’s gospel tries, even if it fails to do so. Worst case possibility: Most of 21 was inserted by a “Romish” interpolator pushing Petrine primacy. But even Alford thinks that’s foolishness; Peter’s commission is for immediate pastoral activity, not for establishing an empire.

Well, you see what I’m driving at — a complete work, with sensible beginning, middle, and end, not haphazardly constructed, though a little bumpy here and there where patch meets patch.  Probably ideally suited to the community that received it in its final form, and to the temperament and convictions of a Martin Luther among others.  But not quite our cup of tea, I’m glad to see.

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