"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 15 Epilogue: A Picnic by the Beach Jn 21.1-19


With the end of ch20, the Beloved Disciple has completed the various lists of sevens with which his gospel is organised, such as the two lists (one absolute and one with predicates) of seven I AMs and the list of seven signs. The BD has also finished his account of the works of Jesus, and brought his great theme of witnessing, based on the requirements in Deuteronomy 19.15, to its conclusion. So why have an Epilogue at all?

The painstaking analysis of Professor Bauckham in 'The 153 Fish' has demonstrated that this epilogue does not result from second thoughts on the part of the evangelist. Rather, the BD conceived of the epilogue as a part of the work from the start and built in numerological and other rhetorical devices to tie the final part to the whole. Bauckham also cites stylistic analysis by previous scholars arguing that the whole Gospel from prologue to epilogue is the work of a single author.

Bauckham's analysis differs from the prevailing opinion of 20th-century scholarship on John, which was that the Gospel of John was clearly the product of a complicated process of composition to which an epilogue had been added after the fact. But it seems clear that, if the types of analyses that Bauckham cites or carries out himself have any validity, 20th-century thinking on many aspects of the Fourth Gospel, including the place of the epilogue in the whole work, will have to be re-examined and perhaps set aside.

None of this helps to answer the question why the evangelist conceived of this epilogue, and made it an integral part of his gospel. There are at least three reasons why the BD may have done so that seem to me to be particularly applicable here. First, he may have added an epilogue because he wanted to tell the story of the reconciliation of Peter with Jesus and the rest of the remaining Eleven. Second, he may have wanted to tell about the meeting between Jesus and his disciples in Galilee as foretold in Mark's Gospel (see p 000 below). Finally, he may have wished to at least give some hint of what would happen to Peter and to himself, as well as to contradict the story that Jesus had personally predicted that he would not die until Jesus returned. This story offers the opportunity to do all three.

There is a fourth theory as well: that in the epilogue the BD deals with the future life of the community of Jesus' disciples. Bauckham observes that "the catch of 153 fish in the narrative of chapter 21 parabolically illustrates people coming to faith in Jesus and to new life as children of God".1 If so, the catch of fish here is functioning similarly to Mark's story of the call of the first disciples: they are called by Jesus out of their boats to become not ordinary fishers, but fishers of people (Mark 1.16-20). Catching fish becomes a metaphor of mission in Jn 21 as well, and both Peter and the BD will take part in it.

The epilogue falls into three interlocking sections. First is the story of the disciples' fishing expedition that culminated in the "miraculous draft of fish" and Jesus' invitation to come and eat with him. Next is the conversation between Jesus and Peter in which the latter recanted his earlier denial of Jesus and affirmed his love for his Teacher and Lord. Finally, there is the continuation of that conversation into Jesus' words about the future of both Peter and the Beloved Disciple.

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The two previous accounts of appearances by the risen Jesus were very carefully dated, the first on the evening of the day of the Resurrection and the second a week later. But the events of the epilogue, including Jesus' appearance to this group of disciples, are dated only by the very imprecise "[a]fter this".

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This body of water, better known to readers of the NT as the Sea of Galilee, is (of course) in Galilee, rather than in Judaea, where Jesus rose. In Mark, the women are told, "[G]o, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." However, Mark doesn't tell us about any appearance of the risen Jesus. On the other hand, in John 20, Mary Magdalen is not told that the disciples and Peter will experience a future encounter with Jesus in Galilee, but just such an encounter, between Jesus and seven of his disciples, is narrated here. Perhaps the BD is once again supplying in his gospel information that Mark had omitted - if so, what he describes in these verses may well be the encounter in Galilee promised by Mark.

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Seven disciples are indicated here (the other two accounts do not list which disciples were present, other than the absence of Thomas for the first and his presence for the second). They were Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee (ie, James and John), and two others. As the story progresses, we learn that one of these disciples was the Beloved Disciple. We know that four of these men were Galilean (Peter, Nathanael, and the sons of Zebedee). We do not know the origins of Thomas or the two "others", though since Thomas was one of the Twelve, he may well have been Galilean as most of them were. In v3 we learn that Peter took the other six on a long and no doubt frustrating fishing expedition. Peter and the sons of Zebedee were fishermen by trade, who had operated in the Sea of Galilee.. We don't know where along the Sea of Galilee this story takes place - it could be at or near Capernaum which would have been familiar ground to all of the Twelve (and four of these seven men were among the Twelve). So they might have expected Peter to know the waters well, and to be likely to lead them all in a successful fishing trip.

Should we identify the BD as John the son of Zebedee or, in light of authorial practice elsewhere in the Gospel, should we identify him as one of the two others? As I have argued in the Introduction, I do not think we should identify the evangelist of this gospel as John the son of Zebedee (see pp 000-00). If we take all the other references to the BD in the Gospel, we see that the evangelist never names the BD, but only identifies him as a disciple or another disciple, or "that disciple". It seems that it would be quite a break with the evangelist's usual style to refer the BD here both by name as a son of Zebedee and as the disciple Jesus loved.

Further this reference to the sons of Zebedee by name is unique - they are never named among Jesus' disciples elsewhere in this Gospel. No incident involving the disciples specifically includes them, although they must surely have been among the Twelve, mentioned in Jn 6.66-71. Nor do the things that we know from the Synoptic tradition about John son of Zebedee fit well with what we can deduce about the BD. One (John the son of Zebedee) is the son of a prosperous fisherman in Galilee; the other (the BD) is connected with Judaea, likely from a wealthy background, and possibly even connected with the high priestly family. There seems no strong reason here to associate the BD with one of the sons of Zebedee; rather, it is more probable that he was one of the two other disciples referred to here in v2.

Despite their reasonable expectations that the fishing trip would be successful, they have to acknowledge that they have had no luck when the apparent stranger on the shore asks them in v5. He points them to the right place to cast their nets and suddenly they take on a catch so heavy that it almost swamps their boat; then they try to draw up the net. The stranger, of course, is Jesus. For those who take the story of the miraculous catch of fish to refer symbolically to the mission of Jesus' disciples in drawing men and women to trust in him, this part of the story points out the continuing role of Jesus in the success of that mission. Without his help, they will have no luck fishing for people either!

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Just as, in Luke's account (Luke 24.13-35), Cleopas and his companion on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus recognise Jesus in the act of his blessing and breaking bread at their meal, here in the Fourth Gospel, the BD recognises Jesus in his act of reorientation - Jesus shows them the right place to cast their nets and their obedience to his command is abundantly rewarded. His words inspire Peter to yet another of his extravagant gestures: belting his outer clothing back around him, he jumps in the lake and makes his way to shore. Fortunately, since his gesture in putting on his clothes was both dangerous and foolish for someone going swimming, the boat was not far from shore, and the Sea of Galilee is a shallow lake.

Why was Peter so eager to reach Jesus first? Of course there is no way to know for sure, but it seems possible it had to do with Peter's actions the night of Jesus' arrest. Peter had denied that he was one of Jesus' followers, denied that he even knew Jesus, that night. He was, it appears, reconciled with his fellow members of the Twelve, or at least on the road to reconciliation. But an opportunity to speak with the risen Jesus alone would no doubt be tempting to Peter, to complete his reconciliation with his Lord.

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After the BD's recognition of the stranger as Jesus and Peter's dramatic swim to shore and after they have towed the net to shore, we learn that the catch was 153 large fish. Even after taking out enough fish for a meal with Jesus they would surely have had enough to sell for a useful sum. The specificity with which the catch is identified - 153 fish, and not just any fish, but large ones - has made some wonder whether that number simply reflects the actual number of fish in the catch, while others judge that it has a purely symbolic significance.

Bauckham has demonstrated in '153 Fish' that 153 (the triangular of 17) and 17 itself are numbers that can symbolically refer to Ezekiel 47.1 and 47.10, texts which are also alluded to elsewhere in John's Gospel, especially in Jn 7.38. This leaves us in a situation that is hard to resolve as far as the possible historicity of the 153 fish is concerned. Perhaps the best interpretation is to acknowledge that a good argument can be made both that the number 153 at the least comes from a tradition that goes back to the BD (even if it is not historical) and that the number was understood symbolically by at least some of the gospel's first readers.

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These three questions from Jesus are, to me, the centre of the epilogue. Jesus demonstrates love and compassion for Peter by offering him the way back to the heart of God which, as we learned from the teaching at the Last Supper, is the goal of our journey, reached through trust and loving obedience. Peter now has an opportunity to "take back" his rejection and betrayal of Jesus both in words (Jn 18.17, 25-7) and deeds (Jn 18.11) on the night of his arrest. Jesus provided this by asking Peter three time to affirm his love for Jesus; each time, he accepts Peter's response as sincere and genuine and gives him a task. That task is to care for Jesus' flock, variously described as lambs and sheep. Peter is to pasture and shepherd them -- this will be his love for Jesus in action. If the wonderful catch of fish symbolises on some level the disciples' labour to find and keep new disciples who would learn to love and obey Jesus, then Peter's task embodies the job of the Twelve and other apostolic witnesses to nurture these new disciples in their love of Jesus and obedience to the Father, so that they too might find everlasting life.

The questions are made more solemn by the threefold addressing of Peter with his full name, his patronymic. Jesus addresses him each time as Simon son of John, Simeon bar Iohanan. In Matthew, the name of Simon Peter's father is given as Jonah (Iona). It's not clear which name is correct, and it is possible that Jonah is a short form of Johanon. But it is easy to see how the two names may have been confused.

Some commentators think that Jesus' reversion to the formal name which he used when he and Peter first met in Jn 1.42 means that Jesus was trying to indicate distance between himself and Simon Peter. This restraint would result from the events in the courtyard of the high priest on the night of Jesus' arrest, the events that now will be cancelled out by Simon's responses to Jesus' questions.

See the comments on Jn 11.2 (pp 000-00) for a discussion of the two different words used for 'love' in this passage.

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Following the dialogue between Peter and Jesus which occupies the middle of this section, attention shifts to Jesus' prophecy about Peter's future fate and Peter's "follow-up" question about the BD. In v18, Jesus uses a familiar object, a belt (actually in this case a cincture to be tied around the clothing), to describe Peter's future. While he was young, he could tie his own belt (that is, get dressed) and go where he pleased. But when he is old, someone else will bind Peter's hands with his belt and take him where he doesn't want to go.

This wording gives some incidental weight to the tradition that Peter was middle-aged at the time of Jesus' resurrection, since Jesus says that Peter was young but will be old. The metaphor of someone else tying him with his cincture or belt when he is old is similar to that used by the Christian prophet Agabus in predicting Paul's martyrdom in Acts 21.11-12 and undoubtedly refers to Peter's own martyrdom. Since this likely took place in the late 60s, and John's Gospel was likely written late in the first century, there seems every reason to think that the BD included this prophecy in part because his readers or hearers would know that it had been fulfilled.

That would increase their trust in what the BD goes on to tell them about himself. Peter, seeing John walking behind them, asks Jesus what will happen to him. The reply is rather abrupt - Peter should not be asking about what will happen to someone else, but concentrating on his own task, which is to follow Jesus - "If I want him to stay until I come, what is that to you?". This gives the evangelist an opportunity to explain a misunderstanding that had arise among the community of disciples, that the BD would not die until the Lord came again. Such a rumour must have caused considerable anxiety as the time lengthened and the BD became older. The evangelist (who, we have argued, was the BD) is anxious to suppress that rumour, and does so (or attempts to do so) with Jesus' sharp reply.

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With these conversations among and about Jesus, Peter, and the BD, the Gospel of John comes to its conclusion. It ends with the affirmation that the evangelist is a truthful eyewitness who has written down what he saw. And it emphasises again the selectiveness of the evangelist's composition - for, he says, if everything Jesus did was written down, the world couldn't contain all the books it would take. Just as John 20.30-31, the conclusion of the book of signs, emphasises all the signs that Jesus performed, so this conclusion emphasises all the things that Jesus did, since his actions here on the shore of the Sea of Galilee are not signs.

Once again the community of disciples who know the Beloved Disciple and know the truth of his eyewitness are invoked by the evangelist's use of the first person plural rather than the singular. Just as he had done in Jn 19.35, the evangelist cannot rely on his own witness alone. The witness of one eyewitness is not enough. But with his use of "we", the BD brings that community to the fore, to join him in witnessing to all that Jesus has done.

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1 Bauckham, '153 Fish' pp 280-1.