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.

Bibliography

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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Papa Hemingway and Valentine’s Day

This is a slightly modified version of an article I was asked to submit to a local magazine, Vero’s Voice. The article was not picked up because it “wasn’t American enough,” (and to be fair, that is what they had requested) so I figured I would push it off on my unsuspecting readers.

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February will see a spike is candy sales and flower deliveries as people celebrate Valentine’s Day, the American holiday devoted to love. While the holiness of such a day is certainly up for debate, the value placed on Valentine’s Day by the average American is evidenced in stores and malls everywhere. Apparently, we are a nation who loves to be in love. Ernest Hemingway, the quintessential American author, was known more for his personal exploits at times than for his literary prowess. In Hemingway’s breakout novel, The Sun Also Rises, the central character Jake Barnes discovers a profound concept for life through his new acquaintance the Count. “I am always in love,” Mippipopolous explains. It is a short scene, and if you are not paying attention you can easily miss it. Yet, these five simple words set Jake off on a pilgrimage, where he begins to grasp what it means to love truly.

The kind of love the Count is advocating is not restricted to the arena of romance, but rather reflects a holistic approach to living, which advocates for the proper flourishing of humanity. This idea, found in a “profane” piece of American literature, finds a corollary in the Christian Scriptures: “…I came to give life with joy and abundance,” (John 10:10, The Voice). Despite the surface differences between the two works, the idea is a sound one. A life lived without love can hardly be called a “life” at all. However, it must be about more than a fleeting emotion, or devotion to some particular hobby. To be fully human is to find the ultimate love, to rest fully in what our hearts long for. To put it another way, our hearts make us a restless people until they are filled as they were always intended to be. There is an aim that each of us is built to seek, and it is only there that we can fully be “in love.”

It is sometimes hard to picture such a fulfilling notion of life emerging from “Papa” Hemingway. His penchant for drinking and his reputation as a scoundrel with women certainly throw a damper on any impression that he fully grasped the very knowledge he was touting. But is that not the case with so many of us? Millions of Americans will pour into shops this Thursday to purchase candy, buy roses and pick up singing cards; but it is important to take stock. While Hemingway may not have found a way to apply this kind of love to every aspect of his life, his zeal and passion for things like fishing and bullfighting prove that he did the best he knew how. Can the same be said for you? For me?

Recombobulation

I think its important to approach people as though they’re giving it their best shot. By "it," I mean life, living, breathing, the works. I’ve often been in a position to help people get things in order, and too many times I’ve only made them feel as though they weren’t doing enough. That’s completely backwards.

Tommy used to say that Christianity was easy. "It’s life that’s difficult." I never understood what he meant, until recently. I don’t think he was saying the life of Christ in us is simple. Christ’s life brings suffering, just as a lump of coal must first feel extreme pressure to become a diamond. I’ve heard said, "Surely God didn’t make that awful thing happen. He doesn’t want you to experience pain. God brings peace. God gives healing. He wants us to enjoy life." While its true that God is a healer and He gives us peace, it’s ludicrous to believe that as Christians we won’t suffer. God sent His Son to this world to die on a Cross in a horrible fashion. Why do we think we won’t feel any pain in this world?

I think there’s a serious lack of courage when it comes to reminding our Christian brethren to keep Christ central to their daily existence, but I don’t think we should be eager to tell people they’re falling short, because "all fall short of the glory of God."

It’s important for me to remember that no one has got it all figured out. I forget that sometimes, which is usually a sign that my spiritual pride had raised its ugly head and needs to be dealt with. I’m reminded of a moment in the journey of Jake Barnes:

Perhaps as you went along you did learn something. I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about.

Jake was a man who felt like he couldn’t get anything right, as though he was without hope. Yet in the end, he found the only Hope he needed. Its a book I recommend. The how of living is so much more important than the million other things that we try and set up as our focus.

As Christmas closes in, a time that for some is wonderful and simultaneously horrid for many others, I pray that I will remember that God applies pressure in order to make us into something more, and that I will be tempered by God’s Spirit so that I know when to lift people up and when to tell them to stand.

The Journey Inward

Shakespeare said that art is a mirror held up to nature. And that’s what it is. The nature is your nature, and all of these wonderful poetic images of mythology are referring to something in you. When your mind is trapped by the image out there so that you never make the reference to yourself, you have misread the image.

The inner world is the world of your requirements and your energies and your structure and your possibilities that meets the outer world. And the outer world is the field of your incarnation. That’s where you are. You’ve got to keep both going. As Novalis said, "The seat of the soul is there where the inner and outer worlds meet." – Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

I don’t agree with Joseph Campbell’s writing 99% of the time, although he occasionally had grand thoughts. The man was definitely brilliant, and yet somehow he managed to miss the entire point of the Gospel of Jesus. I’m reminded of Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians:

…Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies. If anyone supposed he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know; but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him. (8:1b-2)

Paul is imploring Christian’s to lift up the brethren who are without knowledge, so I’m not sure if this passage actually applies to what’s rattling around in my brain. But I see how wonderful Campbell articulates the mystery surrounding the mystical, the mythical and yet somehow he falls short in his interpretation of the Bible. I think this might be because he compartmentalizes the Truth in the Bible, and comes up with "truths" instead.

I’m not knocking knowledge. Even the Bible praises knowledge.

Give instruction to a wise man and he will be wiser still, Teach a righteous man and he will increase his learning. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Proverbs 9:9-10)

But there is something to say for being cautious in the knowledge we seek. Because it is a matter of seeking. Information can be gained without effort. We may not even want to learn some information, and yet we may still learn it all the same. But information is not knowledge. The difference is in the pursuit. Knowledge is learning that which we chase. Think about the romantic interlude called a date. Some people merely gain information; they ask simple questions like "what’s your favorite color?" (which should never be answered with ‘yellow’) But there are people who gain real knowledge of the object of their affection. They watch, they listen, and they participate in discourse. Similar likes are information. Common ideals and principles are knowledge. And it is not very different with God. We can read that "God is love," but it’s just information. To know God is love requires an element of experience. And wisdom is that experience applied to life.

I think that Joseph Campbell was a man with tons and tons of information. He was a veritable fount of info. He probably loved the internet. But that’s not experience. I wonder if you can apply information to daily life? Does it fulfill? I’d imagine not. That makes me think of Hemingway, (and what doesn’t?).

I know in my own life, I have to be careful of what knowledge I pursue. With all that lays before me, it would not be difficult to step off the path and onto the grassy fields of contentment. But, just as Bunyan’s Christian, I would end up in a dungeon, a prisoner of my own mind. Today I ask God to give me guidance and prudence in all that I study. And I pray that we all might be moved to ‘understand’ the Holy One.

"That is the secret, you must get to know the values."

"I am always in love." – Count Mippipopolous, The Sun Also Rises

What are the values in my life? Do they originate with God? Or myself? Or even more frightening, can I ever really know the answer to that?

The Count’s words have been ringing in my head for the better part of a week now. Might be nothing, but it might be something. As I sit and mull those words in my head over and over and over, I ask what it means to be "always in love?"

I don’t think the Count is insinuating that he always has a pretty lass on his arm and in his bed come sundown. I think he’s after something entirely different. In truth, I think he’s after something Biblical.

Hemingway started the novel with an epigraph from Ecclesiastes, "but the earth abideth forever" (1:4). The author even wrote in a letter that the earth was the true hero of the novel, because it will always remain. But I do believe that there was something else palpitating along underneath that. The whole book of Ecclesiastes bleeds onto the pages of The Sun Also Rises. Think of the scene where Brett goes with Jake to church and yet she will not pray; "Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong" (5:1).

But there is a response to Ecclesiastes. I’m not talking about a novel or some commentary, but I refer here to the Gospels of Jesus Christ. And as I think about how Christ came to fully demonstrate that man should "fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man" (Ecc. 12:13), but Christ also came to impart that "as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Now remain in my love. […] This is my command: Love each other" (John 15:9, 17).

And the Count is a man who understands the words of Jesus. He knows the values that Jesus taught. And he sought to help Jake Barnes uncover the "secret" by setting him on his pilgrimage to Pamplona.

So I ask myself, am I always in love? The answer: I truly hope to be.