The Literary Seams of John 21

When approaching the Bible from a literary perspective, there is a tendency to take examination to an extreme. At times, the reader cannot see anything but gaps that must be explained, while others cannot see the seams that make a particular story or letter unique. While both perspectives provide invaluable checks and balances to the process of studying God’s Word, it is short-sighted to see either viewpoint as whole in and of itself. The Gospel of John is perhaps the best example of this. While the Gospel is hailed by many, and slighted by some, the controversy that surrounds the aporias, or literary seams, within the text have spawned a host of scholarship trying to pinpoint the exact shape and development of the Fourth Gospel.[1] Questions abound regarding these seams: Where do these aporias originate? Does this demonstrate multiple authors or editors? Is the general understanding of the Gospel’s purpose altered as a result? Each of these questions shapes the reader’s perspective on John, and volumes have been written in an attempt to finally unlock the secrets of John’s Gospel.

Bearing in mind the overwhelming interest in this subject, there is an important literary aspect which may play a pivotal role in understanding the Fourth Gospel. Ernest Hemingway, the greatest American author of the 20th century, often wrote that there was an element to literature which could make the work itself “absolutely true.”[2] Regardless of gaps and inconsistencies and grammar, the author of the Fourth Gospel accomplished exactly what Hemingway was talking about; the Gospel of John is an absolutely true book. The seams that are sometimes used to dissect his work are but a part of the beauty at work in the Gospel, and it is only through understanding the “out of place” material in light of the truth being explored that the grace and elegance of the Gospel can truly come forth. By examining the very things which seem to make the Fourth Gospel feel disjointed, a window into the purpose of the Gospel is revealed which show the ancient text to be a work of genius, as well as a complete guide to the mystical aspects of Christianity.

One of the aporias found in John’s Gospel is the 21st chapter. Following the excellent closing words in 20:20-31, the author of John added what appears to be an additional chapter that further explored Jesus’ resurrection appearances to His disciples. This chapter raises questions regarding the purpose, the authorship, and the audience behind the Gospel. D.A. Carson summarizes the 21st chapter as “designed to be a kind of Epilogue that balances the Prologue (1:1-18) by tying up some loose ends and pointing the way forward.”[3] Carson makes a good case for the idea that John 21 must have been a part of the original text of the Gospel, even if added after the initial closing in Chapter 20. In his commentary on John, W. Hall Harris comes to the same conclusion pointing out that there are no Greek manuscripts that do not contain John 21, concluding that “it seems best to regard chapter 21 as an integral part of the original composition of the Fourth Gospel in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary.”[4] Without significant opposition to their claims, Carson and Harris both see the purpose of John 21 as one of clarification, regardless of when the chapter was added.

Taking an alternative position, Robert Kysar sees the ending of John in a different light. Highlighting the inconsistency of having two endings that state almost the same thing like in 20:30-21 and 21:25, Kysar sees the final chapter as a “weak attempt to imitate the former.”[5] Rather than the balancing act that Carson notes, Kysar sees in the final chapter of John the underlining message of reconciliation between Christians who would have not completely trusted Peter due to his denials of Christ. While Kysar’s points are interesting, and occasionally valid, they are rather one-sided in their view.

In the end, there is no contradiction between the perceived purposes of the commentaries. Establishing Peter’s redemption to a community of Christians could easily be worked into the effort at ending the Gospel of John with a conclusion more closely related to the Prologue found in chapter 1. The isolation of these two views are dependent upon the assumed author and audience of the Gospel, but despite this limitation the two ideas work in tandem to help create something more complex and beautiful. As Kysar points out, “every witness to Christ has its limitations,” and the author of John clearly understood that.[6] These restrictions do not detract from the validity of the work, however, as made evident in verse 24: “…the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true.” If truth is the driving force behind this final chapter, then the purpose has been accomplished through the intricacy of the conclusion.

Of course, much of the debate surrounding Chapter 21 hinge upon the notions of authorship found in the close of John’s Gospel namely: was the chapter added by the original author or by a later editor. Carson approaches the issue from a traditional perspective, viewing the author of John as one of the Zebedee brothers.[7] With this idea at the forefront of Carson’s thoughts, his assessment of John 21 follows with traditional views concerning John. Carson notes the similarities between Chapter 21 and the rest of the Gospel, for instance noting the frequent use of “Simon Peter” in John’s Gospel to refer to the disciple.[8] Harris takes a slightly more reserved position, stating that “as far as stylistic and linguistic evidence is concerned, nothing absolutely conclusive can be said.”[9] Harris does still hold to the idea that the disciple whom Jesus loved was John, the son of Zebedee, but he does not feel that this belief is enough to conclusively say who wrote John 21. Harris goes on to point out that the author of John21 employs, “a minor stylistic variation of the Evangelist, consistent with his use of minor variations in repeated material elsewhere.”[10] As for Kysar, the closing of John’s Gospel was penned by someone he refers to as “the redactor,” even claiming that this mystery editor was “a contemporary of the author(s) of the Johannine Epistles…and may be none other than the writer of I John.”[11]

Despite these differences of opinion though, all three commentators see in the work an effort to bring closure to John’s Gospel and to help the Christian community (Johannine or not) to keep moving forward with the spread of the Gospel. This idea is evidenced by the previously mentioned redemption of Peter, found in verses 7-17, and also in the author’s need to include Jesus’ statements regarding the deaths of Peter and “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”[12] These inclusions hint at the author’s purpose of answering questions that had likely arisen within the Christian community at the time of the writing, while continuing the discourse on seeing and believing that began in John 20:24-29. The interconnecting themes demonstrate the work of an artist, and should not be sluggishly discounted because of the brief interruption in 20:30-31. Whether added as an addendum or at the original composition, it is most likely that the author of John 21 was the author of the rest of the Gospel, an assertion confidently made once the connections between the language and theme of the two “sections” are highlighted. Harris’ observation of the stylistic aspects of chapter 24 point towards an adept author who understood one of the fundamental needs an author has when capturing the mind of their reader: variety.

When discussing the intended audience of John’s Gospel, inevitably John 21 comes up. Carson connects this debate with I Corinthians 1–4, where some Christians are beginning to divide based on their association with Peter or with John.[13] Carson astutely observes that the discourse between Jesus and Peter, and the subsequent “reinstatement” of Peter, could have been added by the author who also was battling such divisions. This idea coincides with Kysar’s work, which sees verses 15-19 as the “result of a new and closer relationship between the Johannine church and other Christian communities.”[14] Harris takes a less detailed perspective, focusing on the two main thrusts of the Gospel instead. He points out that the Gospel was likely written,

…to witness to unbelievers concerning Jesus, in order that they come to believe in him and have eternal life; and…to strengthen the faith of believers, by deepening and expanding their understanding of who Jesus is.[15]

All of this points to an obvious conclusion: the Gospel of John was most likely written in such a way to appeal to a wide audience, including those who would have been part of different Christian communities and those who would have been strangers to this Christ fellow who was also the Word of God.[16]

These elements all work together. The purpose, writing style, and audience of John’s Gospel are woven into one tapestry that tells the amazing story of Jesus. Much like the Bayeux Tapestry, which details the Norman Invasion of England in 1066, the Gospel of John is a beautiful work of art that must be viewed in whole by stepping back from the isolated portions.[17] While breathing in the entire work, the questions raised by the small peculiarities of John 21 may not fade to the background. Regardless, the work as it is presently maintained is indeed a work of great truth. Perhaps more true than we can rightly ascertain, the seams of John’s writing reveal not only the truth about Jesus Christ, but the truth of what often lies in the mind of the reader. This is perchance a side effect of timeless writing. One thing is for certain though, the topic of John, and all the mysteries that surround his Gospel, will not simply go away or be answered in a single sitting. As Kysar asserts at the end of his commentary, “Let all of us who write and read books confess…that each piece written about Christ is but a tiny dot in the eternal significance of God’s revelation in Christ.”[18] May those words guide us ever deeper into the Truth, be it written down or spiritually revealed.


Burge, Gary M. Interpreting the Gospel of John.   Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1992.

Carson, D.A. The Gospel   According to John. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing   Company, 1991.

Harris, W. Hall. The   Gospel of John: Introduction and Commentary. The Biblical Studies   Foundation, 2001.

Hemingway, Ernest. The   Green Hills of Africa. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963.

Kysar, Robert. John.   Minneapolis, Minnesota: Ausburg Publishing House, 1986.

[1] Burge 1992, 62-63

[2] The Green Hills of Africa 1963, Foreword; “The kind of writing that can be done. How far prose can be carried…There is a fourth and fifth dimension that can be gotten,” (27). This extra layer of writing was not something Hemingway invented, but rather something he sought to perfect. Unfortunately, Hemingway’s own attempts led to most of his work being miunderstood even while he was alive. This is perhaps one of the reasons that this concept lends itself so easily to the Gospel of John. For excellent resources on this subject, see H.R. Stoneback’s Reading Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises and Allen Josephs’ For Whom The Bell Tolls: Ernest Hemingway’s Undiscovered Country.

[3] The Gospel According to John 1991, 665

[4] The Gospel of John: Introduction and Commentary 2001, 205

[5] John 1986, 311

[6] Ibid., 321

[7] The Gospel According to John 1991, 68

[8] Ibid., 668

[9] The Gospel of John: Introduction and Commentary 2001, 205

[10] Ibid., 211

[11] John 1986, 313

[12] John 21:18-23 (NASB)

[13] The Gospel According to John 1991, 682

[14] John 1986, 317

[15] The Gospel of John: Introduction and Commentary 2001, 203

[16] John 1:1-2 (NASB)

[17] The Tapestry is over 224 ft. long and is a truly wonderful sight. See David M. Wilson’s The Bayeux Tapestry.

[18] John 1986, 322

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