Tuesday, December 27, 2011

John 21: Later Addition or Epilogue?

Is John 21--the chapter where, arguably, we learn the most about the "beloved disciple"--a later addition to the book or was it originally part of the Gospel?

It is widely acknowledged that John 20 stands as an appropriate ending to the book. It presents us with, what Beasely-Murray calls, a "total picture of the Easter story": the empty tomb, the witness of Mary Magdalene, the confirmation of the empty tomb by two disciples, an appearance of Jesus to Mary and other disciples, the reception of the Spirit and Jesus' commissioning of the apostles.

Moreover, the chapter ends with an epilogue, which seems to bring the book to a close: "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:30-31).

Beasely-Murray thus concludes: "Had he planned to record the appearance(s) to Peter and his colleagues narrated in chap. 21 he would have composed chap. 20 differently" [George R. Beasely-Murray, John (2nd ed.; WBC 36; Columbia: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 395].

Looking at chapter 21, many scholars argue that it was written by another hand. One of the reasons for this is that it seems as though chapter 21 does not follow neatly from chapter 20. In addition to the fact that John 20:30-31 seems to tie up the Gospel narrative in such a way as to conclude the Gospel, some have argued that John 21 also seems detached from what has come before it.

Is this so? Let us examine this more closely.

The Problems 

John Breck lays out the most common reasons given in support of this line of thought:
  1. The epilogue in chapter 20:30-31 serves as an apparent conclusion, as mentioned above.
  2. Chapter 21 does not show us the disciples setting out on the mission given to them by Jesus in chapter 20--rather than going out to evangelize, the apostles go fishing.
  3. Whereas chapter 20 called for believing without seeing, chapter 21 seems to emphasize the importance of seeing and believing.
  4. There is a reference to "we" in John 21:24, which most see as an indication of later redactional work.
  5. Chapter 21 seems to focus on concerns of the Church, addressing issues of the later Christian community.
  6. Some of the themes developed in chapter 21 are only found in places in the Gospel where scholars believe later interpolations have been introduced.
  7. Chapter 21 contains language and stylistic elements not found elsewhere in the Gospel.
[These arguments are laid out by John Breck, "John 21: Appendix, Epilogue or Conclusion?, in St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 36 (1992): 27-49].

Here I want to look at these seven arguments.

1. A Double Ending?

Double endings seem to be characteristic of Johannine literature. Breck cites the work of Peter Ellis,[1] who has noted the use of double-endings in Johannine literature. Consider John 12:36b-37: “When Jesus had said this, he departed and hid himself from them. 37 Though he had done so many signs before them, yet they did not believe in him.” Interestingly, the passage continues on to say that the disbelief of the Jews fulfilled a prophecy of Isaiah (John 12:38-43). It then relates a final speech of Jesus (John 12:44-50). This especially curious since John has already stated that Jesus went and hid himself from the people!

One should also consider the close of 1 John 5. 1 John exhibits numerous similarities to the Fourth Gospel. There seems to be a deliberate imitation of the Fourth Gospel in the stylized prologue (cf. John 1:1-18; 1 John 1:1-4). Both seem to share a closing statement of purpose (cf. John 20:31; 1 John 5:13). Moreover, after the summary statement of 1 John 5:13, the letter continues on—paralleling what is found in the fourth Gospel. Breck concludes: “John 20:30ff., like 1 John 5:13, thus seems to represent a stylistic device that serves as a pivotal ‘definition of purpose’ between the main body of the writing and the conclusion.”[2]

Moreover, John 20:35ff. and John 21:25 seem to form a kind of inclusion.
A. (20:30f). Inclusion: Many signs.
B. 21:1-14. The Beloved Disciple and Peter: the Beloved Disciple recognizes Jesus
C. 21:15-19a: Peter’s rehabilitation
B.’ 21:19b-24: The Beloved Disciple and Peter: the Beloved Disciple (as the author) witnesses to Jesus
A.’ (21:25) Conclusion: the overwhelming number of signs of Jesus.

In fact, the Fourth Gospel frequently makes use of this kind of chiasmus structure.[3] For example, in John 19:19-22 we see the following:
A. (19:19) Pilate also wrote a title and put it on the cross; it read, “Jesus of
Nazareth, King of the Jews
B. (19:20a) Many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified near the city
C. (19:20b) and it was written in Hebrew, Latin and in Greek.
B.’ (19:21a) And the chief priests of the Jews then said to Pilate,
A.’ (19:21b) “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”

It should also be pointed out that John 21 forms a kind of inclusion with the opening chapter of John. Here once again Jesus is found on the shores of Galilee with the fishermen. Indeed, as Ellis has shown, there are a number of parallels between 1:19-51, 2:1 and chapter 21, such as the repetition of names, terms and expressions (Simon, son of John; Jesus, Son of God; Nathanael; two unnamed disciples; Cana; Galilee; “follow me”; “who are you?”; “bear witness”; “turned and saw following”; “remain”; “word”, etc.). It is also noteworthy that chapter 21 relates that the beloved disciple is he that lay at Jesus bosom (kolpos) at the Last Supper (21:20). This echoes John 1:18, which tells us that Jesus came from the bosom (koplos) of the Father. Ellis concludes, “As Jesus is to the Father so the Beloved Disciple is to Jesus!”[4]

2. Gone fishing?

If one takes seriously the Lukan account of Pentecost then one of course would not yet expect the apostles to go out yet to evangelize. Yet, the mission given to the disciples in the previous chapter is probably not completely forgotten, since the catching of fish certainly seems an appropriate metaphor for their future ministry.

3. Seeing is Believing?

In chapter 21, it is only the Beloved Disciple who recognizes Jesus and only after Jesus’ voice was heard and obeyed. I would agree with Blomberg, who argues that objections (3) and (5) are “proabaly false disjunctions.[5]

4. The Use of "We"

The use of “we” may not necessarily indicate a later redaction. Breck describes the peculiar Johannine tendency to switch from the singular to the plural. One might look at Jesus’ own words in 3:11-13, in which he speaks of himself in the singular, plural and third persons within the space of three verses:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man.”
In some cases this involves the inclusion of the witness of the community of faith with the author. Such is likely the case in John 1:14, where the author says, “we have beheld his glory.”

Here I will cite Breck’s comments in full:
“In John 21:24 the author identifies the Beloved Disciple as the primary witness to the events recounted―not just in the resurrection scene of this chapter but in the entire Gospel. His words reaffirm what was already claimed in 19:35, that the witness he bears is true and dependable. It is significant that in 19:35, as in 21:24a, the verb is in the present tense: he has borne witness yet “he knows that he tells (λέγει) the truth”; “this is the disciple who is bearing witness (ὁ μαρτυρῶν) to these things.” The author of the Gospel, in ch. 19 as in ch. 21, declares that he witnessed both Jesus’ death and resurrection, and that the written testimony comes from his hand… In any event the principle of affirming eye-witness tradition is consistent throughout the Gospel, from the first chapter to the last (1:14; 3:11; 19:35; 21:24). The statements in 21:24, then, simply because they reflect the collective 'we' of the community’s faith and witness, cannot be used to argue against the authenticity of this passage.”[6]
We should also note here verse 23: “The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’” While some have seen this as an addition made after the death of the Beloved Disciple, nothing in the text necessarily leads to that conclusion.

5. Too much focus on the Church?

While it is true that the end of chapter 21 focuses on ecclesiological issues, one need be careful not to overstate this dimension of the chapter. The first part is clearly focused on a resurrection appearance of Christ―with many similarities to chapter 20, it should be noted. It should also be mentioned that concern for the community of faith is not at all foreign to the Gospel. One need only think of the Farewell Discourse in chapters 13-16 (the promise of the sending of the Spirit upon the disciples; the warning of future persectutions; the vine and branch imagery used for Christ and believers; Jesus’ insistence that the disciples have been “chosen”; the notion of disciples “bearing fruit”). In fact, the failed fishing expedition seems to corroborate Jesus’ warning in chapter 15:5: “apart from me, you can do nothing.” The final prayer of Christ in chapter 17 is also clearly concerned with the fate of the Christian community.

6. Interpolations?

The supposed interpolations linked to John 21 are actually probably authentic. These interpolations are 6:51c-58 and John 5:28-29. A close examination reveals their connection to chiastic structures within the text.[7]

7. Unique language?

In regard to the language differences, much is due to the unique content of chapter 21. In addition, see the work of de Solages and Vacherot who have offered a detailed examination, showing that this chapter is not on the whole significantly more different than other sections within the Gospel, which contain unique elements.[8]


I must admit that I have not read everything out there on this issue. However, very few of those who dismiss the authenticity of chapter 21 seriously engage with the arguments above. That concerns me a great deal.

A this point, my conclusion would be that given what we have seen above, I think it is difficult to simply shrug off the authenticity the chapter. In fact, a strong case can be made in favor of seeing it as part of the literary whole of the Gospel. Merely appealing to the "majority opinion" among scholars will not do.

We might also add one observation that we have not mentioned: there is no manuscript evidence to indicate that either the title of the Gospel or last chapter were ever added later to the document. Such conclusions are not based on what is found in ancient manuscripts but rather on certain hypothetical conclusions.

Furthermore, I should add that it seems to me that the presence of the prologue at the start of the Gospel makes it likely that the Gospel would conclude with a kind of epilogue. Of course, that in-and-of-itself does not constitute a very strong argument. However, in my opinion, taken with what we've seen above such a view garners some force.

[1] Peter Ellis, “The Authenticity of John 21,” in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 36 (1992): 17-25; idem., The Genius of John: A Composition-Critical Commentary on the Fourth Gospel (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1984), 290-312.
[2] Breck, “John 21,” 29.
[3] For a fuller treatment see Peter Ellis, “Inclusion, Chiasm and the Division of the Fourth Gospel,” in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 47 (2003): 131-154.
[4] Peter Ellis, “The Authenticity of John 21,” 24.
[5] Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 272.
[6] Breck, “John 21,” 33.
[7] For a detailed look, see Breck, “John 21,” 35; Ellis, The Genius of John, 90ff.
[8] Bruno de Solages and J. –M. Vacherot, “Le chapitre XXI de Jean: est-il de la meme plume que le reste de l’Evangile?" in Bulletin de littérature ecclésiastique 80: 96-101.


Marco V. Fabbri said...

First, I thank you for your comments. I teach Bible (including Johannine writings) in Rome, and I will let my students know about your blog. The reason is that I find the same faith that I hold.
I think that it would be useful to add that, whoever wrote John 21, Roman Catholics believe that it is part of the canonical NT, and therefore it is no less inspired that a text written by Paul himself. We find the same Word of God in all parts of the text that the Church received as sacred.
That said, it may be discussed who the inspired writer of John 21 was.
I think that there are important reasons to think that it was not the same person that wrote John 1-20.
The first reason is that chapter 20 ends in vv. 30-31 with a fully-fledged conclusion, that points back to the σημεῖα (signs), that can be found in John 2-12. Therefore, unless the contrary is proved, I understand John 20,30-31 as the conclusion of John 1-20.
The second reason is that John 21,24 says the the beloved disciple wrote ταῦτα. This forms an inclusion with 21,1: Μετὰ ταῦτα. It is reasonable to think that ταῦτα refers to what comes before ch. 21, as in John 20,30-31 it refers to the Gospel as a whole, down to the first conclusion.

Marco V. Fabbri said...

(Follow from before: I have split my comments in two).
If we compare John 21 with John 1-20, several reasons lead to think that the writer of John 21 is not the same beloved disciple who, according to 21,24, wrote ταῦτα. I list them as follows:
1. John 21,24 says that "we know that his witness is true" (οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἀληθὴς αὐτοῦ ἡ μαρτυρία ἐστίν). The verb is in first plural, so that whoever is speaking can be easily distinguished from the beloved disciple, that is referred to in third person: "he".
2. If the person speaking were the same as the author of John 1-20, he would be a person who testifies on his own behalf. As John 5,31 says: "If I testify on my own behalf, my testimony cannot be verified" (Ἐὰν ἐγὼ μαρτυρῶ περὶ ἐμαυτοῦ, ἡ μαρτυρία μου οὐκ ἔστιν ἀληθής). See also John 8,13-14.17
3. John 21,20-23 says that Jesus didn't say that the beloved disciple wouldn't die, contrary to the word spread among the brothers. These verses make a better sense if they were written after the death of the beloved disciple, out of the worry that some brothers might think that Jesus was wrong. If so, the beloved disciple was already dead and couldn't write these verses.
4. The fact that we find a conclusion in John 20,30-31 make it plausible that at some time at least the Gospel ended there, and chapter 21 was added subsequently, by the same author or by a different one. The fact that the conclusion in 20,30-31 is not modified when chapter 21 is added leads to think that the author of John 21 didn't think he could change what was already written. This doens't happen in John 1-20, whenever the test is modified. For instance, chapters 15-17 seem to be inserted between the command of Jesus in 14,31 and its execution in 18,1. Whoever inserted the chapters felt free to alter the existing text. One reason for that may be that the same author is expanding his own work. The author of John 21 doesn't think he is free to do the same.
5. Chapter 21 uses 174 different words. 27 of them are not existent in John 1-20, even when the text is talking about the same things. For instance, in chapter 6 fish is ὀψάριον, while ἰχθύς is never used. Chapter 21 uses ἰχθύς. It is unlikely that the author of John 21 is the same as the author of John 1-20.

Anonymous said...

In his book THE GENIUS OF JOHN, Ellis indicates that he sees 20:19-21:25 as a finely structured, concentrically arraigned and unified narrative:

A1) Jesus commissions the Apostles (20:19-23).

B1) The risen Lord's presence required for Thomas' conversion (20:24-29).

C) the purpose of the signs (20:30-31).

B2) The risen Lord's presence required for the finding of fish (21:1-14).

A2) Jesus commissions Peter (21:15-25).

Marco V. Fabbri said...

I appreciate the efforts to find concentric structures. They may be a useful way to notice things that are in the text and would otherwise escape us. Even so, I would be careful when using summaries. It is all to easy to find equivalent portions of text, once we had made a summary that includes just what we need and leaves out what we don't. It seems to me that the requirement in B1 and B2 above are very different in nature (conversion will always be necessary to everybody, not so fish) and in extension: 5 vv. in B1, 14 in 1-14. The difference in extension makes me think that B1 and B2 are not part of a concentric structure.

Anyway, even if there were a concentric structure, it wouldn't prove that the author of John 21 is the same as the author of 1-20. The alleged concentric structure may be the work of the author of John 21. What the structure would prove is that the author of John 21 already has the written text of John 1-20.

I contend that John 21 reflects the reception, on part of the Church, of John 1-20.

Anonymous said...

Anyway, even if there were a concentric structure, it wouldn't prove that the author of John 21 is the same as the author of 1-20. The alleged concentric structure may be the work of the author of John 21. What the structure would prove is that the author of John 21 already has the written text of John 1-20.

It's obvious from this statement that that you are not familiar with Peter Ellis' proposal concerning John's Gospel. It is his contention (building upon a work by Fr. John Gerhard, S.J.) that the entire body of the Gospel (1:19-21:25) is concentric in structure. He sees the body as consisting of 5 major parts which are themselves concentrically related to one another:


Further, it is his contention that Parts A and B each consist of 5 subsections which provide concentric parallels with B* and A* (also containing 5 subsections each). Simply put, he sees the first subsection of A (namely 1:19-51) paralleling the last subsection of A* (20:19-21:25); the second subsection of A (2:1-12) paralleling the second to last subsection of A* (20:1-18; the third subsection of A (2:13-25) paralleling the third to last subsection of A* (18:1-19:42), and so on.

Obviously, any attempt to discuss Ellis' thesis with someone unfamiliar with it would be a time costly endeavor and, sadly, time is not something I have in abundance. I would like to take up some of the issues you brought up in your initial comments but this will have to wait until Saturday.

Marco V. Fabbri said...

I am sorry if my criticism of an author that is dear to you has hurt you in any way. At the same time, I think that we may have a respectful discussion, that is, one that does not attack the person you are talking to, but rather his reasons. So, please don't take issue if I didn't read Ellis. It is not enough for you to quote Ellis to place the burden of reading Ellis on me. I am sure that we read different things, and we can't do anything about that. But we may help each other by producing the relevant evidence, lovers of wisdom and brothers in Christ.

If you read Ellis, then it is up to you to produce the relevant arguments that you take from him. I am not convinced at all that there is a concentric structure going from 20:19 to 21:25. I have already noted that there is no proportion between B and B1, in both extension and content. I may add that, in order to find corresponding parts in the structure, you are ignoring that both 20:30-31 and 21:25 present themselves as conclusions. In the alleged concentric structure the first conclusion does not serve the purpose of a conclusion, and the second conclusion disappears as such. You don't account at all for 21:25, perhaps because it doesn't fit in the concentric structure. This would leave the end of the Gospel without a conclusion. A theory fails when it doesn't account for reality. In my opinion, this is happening here.

As for the general concentric structure that Ellis finds in John, I see the same important disproportion. The center of the Gospel would be 6:11-21. Before that there are about 3798 words. After that there are about 11698 word. How can that be the center? I am unconvinced.

Moreover, you say that, accorindg to Ellis, the entire body of the Gospel (1:19-21:25) is concentric in structure. I find an inconsistency here. If you have already decided that the entire body of the Gospel goes from 1:19 to 21:25, if it is a starting point, then it is not something that the structure that you find in the process can prove. It would beg the question. On the other hand, if the extension of the body of the Gospel is the conclusion of the analysis, then it can't be used as a starting point. That is, there is no reason to leave 1:1-18 out of the body of the Gospel. If Ellis did that (I don't know, but you say he did and I trust you), then he should start again. John 1:1-18 is A, and he should find something in chapter 21 that serves as A'.

Now, it is possible that this hasn't much to do with discussion about the author of John 21. Perhaps we may discuss this somewhere else? If you point me to a post in your blog that discusses this in detail, I will gladly read it and learn what I can.

Marco V. Fabbri said...

Sorry, I was not careful enough. The center of the Fourth Gospel according to Ellis is not 6:11-21. It is 6:16-21. I need to correct myself out of fairness, as now there are more words (about 3886 instead of just 3798) before the center of the Gospel is found. There remain 11698 words after the center.

Anonymous said...

I was not annoyed or "hurt" with your critique, merely stating that which had become obvious to me.My purpose in stating this was not to insult you but to prepare for my closing comment:Obviously, any attempt to discuss Ellis' thesis with someone unfamiliar with it would be a time costly endeavor and, sadly, time is not something I have in abundance.

Ancient literary structures interest me but I am not slavishly committed to them or to Ellis' position (nonetheless, I find it interesting and not implausible). I made my first comment about Ellis' structure of 20:19-21:25 in the hope that someone familiar with the thesis (whether for or against it) would respond. I do not believe two men can have a fruitful discussion of this issue if only one of them is informed concerning it. It is difficult enough discussing a subject of disagreement when both interlocutors are familiar with the issue; when one is not, it places a substantial burden on the other and that is a burden I have neither the time, energy, or inclination to undertake. For this reason, my comments here will be my last on the issue.

You seem to be under the impression that concentricism necessitates a fair balance of words or verses between the parallels. This may be true with regard to poetry, but is it so in regard to dialogue and narrative? Concentricism is sometimes employed for more than just stylistic or aesthetic purposes; it is sometimes employed to unite and develop themes, ideas, etc.; consequently, it is not unusual to find the second part of the structure to be significantly longer than the first.

The first 18 verses of John's Gospel are a prologue and serve as an overview of the Gospel, I cannot see how identifying the body of the Gospel as beginning at 1:19 is arbitrary, anymore than I can object to a playwright not designating his prologue as Act 1, Scene 1. A prologue is termed such because it goes before (pro) the main word (legein; story, narrative, etc.).

Marco V. Fabbri said...

I agree with you that it doesn't make sense to discuss Ellis' work here. I understand that for you to summarize the reasons that Ellis produces would be a burden. I hope you understand on your part that it would be a burden on me to read Ellis at all, if not enticed by a proposal that strikes me as plausible, or persuaded by the reasoning supporting it. So be it.

About the prologue, though, I would remind you that it is not the Gospel itself that calls it a prologue. It is the interpreter reasoning. The title of the post that we are commenting upon proposed to call John 21 an epilogue. If calling 1,1-18 a prologue is enough to leave it out of the concentric structure, then you shouldn't object is somebody called John 21 an epilogue and left it out of the concentric structure.

So, my objection is that the prologue is separated with a method that is different from the one that is used to analyze the rest of the Gospel. Whatever results are, they labor from this inconsistency.

I agree that there are good reasons to use the name prologue, reasons that date back to Aristotle's Poetics, upon which modern narrative criticism is founded. It is indeed possible to analyze the Gospel with the tools of narrative criticism, but they don't include a search for concentric structures. A narrative may use Ring Composition, that may be represented as A-B-x-B'-A', where x is a text that is not concentric at all.