The Gospel passage which the lectionary offers for this coming Sunday (John 21:1–19) includes some distinctive features worthy of comment. The scene, like many of the scenes of the resurrection of Jesus, is found in this one place only. This contrasts with the empty tomb account, which is found in all four Gospels (Mark 16:1–8; Matt 28:1–10; Luke 24:1–12; John 20:1–18), albeit with variations and differences in each version.
Other resurrection accounts are one-off reports: to the eleven disciples in Galilee (Matt 28:16–20); to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–32); to “the eleven and their companions in Jerusalem” (Luke 24:33–49); to a group (unnamed) of disciples meeting behind locked doors, presumably in Jerusalem (John 20:19–23); and to the disciples, including Thomas, a week later, behind closed doors (John 20:26–29). (This collection of appearances is bundled up into the Longer Ending which was added to Mark’s Gospel in a later century, as Mark 16:9–20.)
There are also claims, made by Paul, about appearances of the risen Jesus, “to Cephas, then to the twelve … then to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time … then to James, then to all the apostles; last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Cor 15:5-8). None of these correlate precisely with the appearances noted in the Gospels.
The location for this particular appearance of Jesus is “by the Sea of Tiberias” (John 21:1). It is only the book of signs that identifies Tiberias as a region which Jesus visits, and then only once, when he feeds to 5,000 (6:1–14, 23). In introducing that story, the author explicitly equates the Sea of Galilee with the Sea of Tiberias (6:1). This sea appears often as the location for stories in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 1:16; 7:31, both paralleled in Matt 4:18; 15:29; see also Luke 5:1, where it is called the “Lake of Gennesaret”). The story told in Luke 5 is important, as we shall explore below, in considering the John 21 narrative.
Seven Disciples by the Lake
The group of seven disciples present when Jesus makes his appearance are identified as “Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples” (21:2). This list of those gathered beside the sea is interesting for who is present, and who is missing.
The author of the book of origins has begun his account with an idiosyncratic list of the earliest followers of Jesus. The first named is Andrew, brother of Simon Peter, who is introduced as one of two disciples of John the baptiser (John 1:35–40). The other one with Andrew is unnamed. Andrew draws his brother, Simon, into the story (1:40–41), providing the first confession of Jesus as Messiah (1:41); although it is Andrew who makes this confession, Jesus bestows a new name upon Simon—to be known henceforth as Cephas, that is, Peter, the “rocky one” (1:42).
Peter figures in many stories in the Synoptic Gospels; Andrew, less often. By Paul’s own admission, “James and Cephas and John” were the “acknowledged pillars” of the Church in Jerusalem (Gal 2:9); James and Peter were key voices amongst “the apostles and the elders” in the gathering often known as the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13–19).
Also amongst the earliest followers of Jesus in the book of origins are Philip, “from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter” (1:43–44) and Nathanael, whom Jesus declares to be “truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (1:45–47). Nathanael provides a triple declaration that Jesus is “Rabbi … the Son of God … the King of Israel” (1:49). Curiously, these earliest followers of Jesus have already made the key confessional affirmations about Jesus in their initial encounters with him—more a literary device than an historically-plausible event.
Peter, of course, figures in the Johannine version of the story about Jesus—only once in the earlier narrative section (John 6:68) but a number of times in the final sections of the story (13:1–11, 21–30, 36–38; 18:10–11, 15–18, 25–27; 20:1–8). The lesser role of Peter, and the way he is contrasted a,onside “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, will be further explored below.
Philip and Andrew are noted as being present both in the story of the feeding of the 5,000 (6:8–14) and when “some Greeks” worshipping in Jerusalem ask Philip, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (12: 20–22). This request evokes a significant response from Jesus, speaking about “my hour”, the seed falling into the ground, and the familiar teaching, “whoever serves me must follow me” (12:23–26). Philip also poses one of the requests put to Jesus during his “farewell discourse”, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (14:8–14). Nathanael, by contrast, is absent from the story until this final post-crucifixion narrative (21:1–3).
So five of the seven who gather by the sea in this post-crucifixion time are clearly identical with individuals named in the Synoptic Gospels. Simon Peter was the earliest disciple called, along with his brother, Andrew (Mark 1:16–18; Matt 4:18–20) and always heads up the list of The Twelve whom Jesus “appointed as apostles” (Mark 3:14; see the list at Mark 3:18 and parallels, and Acts 1:13).
In Synoptic tradition, the sons of Zebedee were the next two disciples called by Jesus (Mark 1:19–20; Matt 4:21–22), where they are named as James and John; they also figure in the list of The Twelve (Mark 3:18 and parallels; Acts 1:13). These two sons are never named in John’s book of signs; nor do they appear anywhere else in the earlier stories of Jesus.
Thomas is named amongst The Twelve in Synoptic traditions (Mark 3:18 and parallels; Acts 1:13). He is noted on three occasions in the book of signs (John 11:16; 14:5; 20:24–29); see https://johntsquires.com/2019/04/23/in-defence-of-thomas-a-doubting-sceptic-or-a-passionate-firebrand/
Philip, introduced by John in company with Nathanael (1:43–51) is linked with Bartholomew in Synoptic traditions (Mark 3:18 and parallels; Acts 1:13). Bartholomew is not mentioned at all in the book of signs; could the Synoptic Bartholomew be the same as the Johannine Nathanael? The identification is often made by interpreters.
The Beloved Disciple and Simon Peter
Who were the other two, unnamed, disciples in that group of seven beside the Sea of Tiberias that early morning? The verses immediately after the section offered by the lectionary provide a clue. The narrative continues, “Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?'” (21:20).
The disciple whom Jesus loved has appeared earlier in the book of signs at two key moments: at the meal with the disciples that included the footwashing (13:23), and beside the cross (19:25–27). There is some question, also, that he may have been “the other disciple” with Simon Peter in the courtyard of the high priest (18:15–16; “the other disciple” is identified as “the one whom Jesus loved” at 20:2).
This disciple actually occupies a more prominent place in the book of signs than Simon Peter, who predominates in the Synoptic accounts. The Johannine narrative of the empty tomb places Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple at the tomb (20:1–10). Whilst the two disciples run to the tomb, the Beloved Disciple arrives first, ahead of Peter, and makes the first confession of faith (20:3–8).
There is a similar dynamic at work in the Johannine account of the final supper, as the Beloved Disciple reclines next to Jesus; at the request of Simon Peter, he asks Jesus about his prediction of betrayal (13:21–25). In both scenes, Peter appears to be in a subservient position to the Beloved Disciple: arriving second at the tomb, asking the Beloved Disciple to ask a question of Jesus.
This contrast is heightened in the Passion Narrative, as the Synoptic accounts of the threefold denial of Jesus by Peter (Mark 14:66–72 and parallels) are replicated in John’s book of signs (John 18:15–18, 15–17), whilst the Beloved Disciple stays close by Jesus, standing at the foot of the cross with his mother, in John’s narrative (19:15–17).
The “competition” between these two early disciples is one clue as to the origins of John’s book of signs. Raymond Brown has developed a complex hypothesis about multiple stages of development of this Gospel, with the figure of the Beloved Disciple providing a focal point of leadership and identity (and perhaps also serving as the earliest source for the distinctive Johannine traditions?). This is a counterpoint to the leadership accorded to Peter in Mark’s account (Mark 1:16-18; 8:29; 10:28; 14:29; 16:7) and the subsequent strengthening of his leadership role by Matthew (Matt 16:13-20).
I still find Brown’s proposal to be quite persuasive. There is a detailed summary and valuable critical analysis of Brown’s hypothesis by L. Jared Garcia at https://leejaredgarcia.com/2020/10/29/the-community-of-the-beloved-disciple-by-raymond-brown-a-book-review/