Back to the lake, back to fishing: a late resurrection story (John 21; Easter 3C)

The Gospel of John seems to come to a clear cut end with a summary and conclusion at the end of chapter 20: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31).

The addition of another chapter, featuring the scene beside the Sea of Tiberias in which Simon Peter figures prominently (21:7, 11), and the subsequent focus on Peter as Jesus affirms and commissions him (21:15-17), are curious. My view is that, together, they provide a later “corrective” to the Johannine focus on the Beloved Disciple, over and above Simon Peter. We have already noted this as being a distinctive perspective within this Gospel. See https://johntsquires.com/2022/04/28/the-third-time-that-jesus-appeared-to-the-disciples-john-21-easter-3c/

That is one reason for viewing this scene as a later addition to the Gospel, which has already come to a clear and definitive conclusion (20:30-31). Why was this chapter added?

In Mark’s earliest narrative, Peter is one of four disciples called at the start of Jesus’ activities in Galilee (Mark 1:16-20). Luke transforms this call narrative so that it both focusses almost exclusively on Peter, and also highlights his calling to a special vocation (Luke 5:1-11). This account briefly notes the presence of two other disciples (“James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon”, 5:10), and omits any mention of Peter’s brother Andrew, in maintaining a clear focus on Peter as the counterfoil to Jesus in what takes place.

John’s Gospel includes a story that is remarkably similar to this Lukan call narrative, but locates it at the very end of the narrative, rather than in the earlier stages of the story. The many similarities within the story include: the location, by the Sea of Tiberias (John 21:1) or beside the lake of Gennesaret (Luke 5:1); Simon Peter as a key character (John 21:3, 7, 11, 15–17; Luke 5:3–8, 10); a lack of fish after a night of fishing (John 21:3; Luke 5:5); an appearance of Jesus (John 21:4; Luke 5:3); a command to try again to catch fish, to cast the net to the other side (John 21:6) or to “put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4); a miraculous catch of many fish (John 21:6–8; Luke 5:6); and a confession of faith in Jesus as “the Lord” (John 21:7, 12; Luke 5:8).

Whereas for Luke, it is Peter who makes the confession of faith in Jesus (Luke 5:8), in John’s narrative it is “the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’” (John 21:7). This is reminiscent of the way that John reshapes the high christological confession of Peter, “you are the Messiah” (Mark 8:30), so that this high claim is spoken by Martha, sister of Lazarus: “yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:27). If the author of the book of signs knew the Synoptic traditions, he has apparently intentionally removed these confessional statements from Peter’s mouth.

The scene on the sea in Luke ends with the command, “from now on you will be catching people” (5:10), maintaining the earlier Markan report of the words of Jesus, “follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:17). By contrast, the Johannine scene is extended with a potent vignette; the invitation to follow is delayed until the end of this extended scene (John 21:19).

In the extended vignette in John’s version, a threefold “rehabilitation” of Peter takes place (John 21:15–17). Three times, Jesus asks a question of Peter, to which he responds in the affirmative; each time, Jesus issues a command to Peter: “feed my lambs … tend my sheep … feed my sheep”.

This triple sequence of question—affirmation—command is often linked to the threefold denial of Jesus by Peter found in all three Synoptics (Mark 14:68, 70, 71; Matt 26:70, 72, 74; Luke 22:57, 58, 60) and also John (18:15, 25, 27). Indeed, the Synoptic accounts explicitly note that Jesus says to Peter, “you will deny me three times” (Mark 14:72; Matt 26:75; Luke 22:61), and each narrative indicates that this has fulfilled a prediction made by Jesus (Mark 14:30; Matt 26:34; Luke 22:34).

This precise prediction is missing from the Johannine narrative; nor does this version make anything of there being three denials. This account simply ends, “again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed” (John 18:27). There is nothing explicit in the account of John 21:15–17 to suggest that it is explicitly looking back to “three denials” by Peter and seeking to redeem him with the threefold question—response—command of the Johannine account.

If the source of chapter 21 of John’s Gospel is other than the context in which the body of the Gospel (chapters 1–20) was formed, then it could well be that the insertion of this short scene does intend to refer back, not to the way that the book of signs portrays the denial of Jesus by Peter, but to the Synoptic account with its explicit noting of the “three times”. The “primacy of Peter” is laid over the narrative which has accorded that place to the Beloved Disciple.

Nevertheless, it is striking, I think, that after this interaction between Peter and Jesus, we are offered commentary on the way in which Peter would die (21:18) and a final invitation, “follow me” (21:19). “Follow me” is what Jesus says to various people during his active public ministry: Peter and Andrew (Mark 1:17), Levi the tax collector (Mark 2:14), an unnamed rich man (Mark 10:21), an unnamed traveller on the road (Luke 9:59), and, in the initial scenes in John’s book of signs, to Philip (John 1:43). Indeed, in John’s account, Jesus explicitly tells Peter, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward” (13:36–37).

Immediately after this comes the prediction of his betrayal by Peter (13:38). Peter is unable to follow Jesus at any point in the story that follows—he denies him (18:15–18, 25–27) and then disappears from the story until he is drawn back into the narrative by Mary (20:2). His “redemption” is not complete until the explicit invitation from Jesus, “follow me”, beside the Sea of Tiberias (21:19). John has reworked and reshaped traditions that we can see in one form in the Synoptic tradition; his reshaping serves his own agenda in terms of the leadership of the Beloved Disciple.

It is that disciple who has the last word in this Gospel, with the curious interaction about his own death (21:20–23) and then the ultimate concluding claim by the author: “this is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true” (21:24). The claim provides a neat segue into the claims made by the author of the letter we know as 1 John: “we declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 John 1:1).

And the final, final word (John 21:25) hearkens back to the initial claims about God acting in and through Jesus as Word (1:1); concerning the full extent of what God does in and through Jesus, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25). The all-knowing author has knowledge beyond even what the present Gospel conveys.

The third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples (John 21; Easter 3C)

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.

La seconde pêche miraculeuse
by James Tissot (1836–1902)

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.

Icon of Philip and Nathanael with Jesus

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).

The disciples Peter and John running to the tomb
on the morning of the resurrection
Painting by Eugène Burnand (1898)

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/

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See also https://johntsquires.com/2022/04/29/back-to-the-lake-back-to-fishing-a-late-resurrection-story-john-21-easter-3c/