The Mess at the End of the Gospel of John

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What follows is a addition to The Gospel of John, my restoration of that original text, free from the later interpolations and excisions of the organized Christian religion, and translated afresh from the Greek. You will find ordering information here.

This volume several times discusses the theory that chapter 21 was originally a letter composed by the team of the eyewitness, Lazarus, and the amanuensis, John the Presbyter; verse 24 represents the “signature” of that team. The letter was written to early followers of Jesus, especially and perhaps only to “the brothers”, the other original disciples, specifically those named in verse 2, and certainly most of all Simon the Rock, who the text suggests was the originator of the rumor addressed by the letter. The rumor among those disciples that Lazarus was never (again) going to die a natural death, because Jesus had raised him from the dead, and the letter was written to eradicate it. The letter, as will be discussed below, was in my view this team’s first written opus, and it led them to decide to take up the much larger task of writing a gospel. It is possible that the letter had some limited distribution (perhaps no farther than those fellow original disciples; as discussed below.

The letter apparently was placed by Papias, together with the gospel manuscript, into the hands of Polycarp, whom I believe was the redactor. By the time these two men were involved, decades later, it would strain credulity to believe the letter came to Polycarp by any other means.

I believe that the amanuensis, John the Presbyter, had intended to bring the contents of the letter into the text of the gospel proper, but never got to that task, along with many other refinements of that work, as discussed elsewhere in this book. Thus, when much later the gospel and letter manuscripts came to Polycarp, this task fell to the latter.

The redactor decided, reasonably, to place the general letter which we now know as chapter 21 as an Epilogue at the end of the gospel. But that created two problems in fitting a letter smoothly into the gospel narrative.

I think the redactor solved the one problem, the beginning of the letter, by rewriting it. As a letter, it would have almost certainly had at the beginning some kind of salutation, probably to Lazarus’s fellow disciples, and a statement of purpose, that this letter was written to counteract that rumor about Lazarus’s vaunted mortal life without end. I believe that the redactor had no choice but to remove such a salutation and statement of purpose in order to bring the letter into the gospel text as much as possible, and to write a new first verse to bridge the narrative gap from chapter 20. A careful reading establishes that 21:1 is an obvious composition of the redactor:

First, the opening phrase μετα ταυτα (“After these things”) appears only in the Synoptics; it is not otherwise found in the Gospel of John. The author of the latter would never have been so vague about the passage of time; he was so meticulous about specifically stating the number of days between a given episode and the previous or a high holy day that this translation can include the exact dates as subheadings.

Second, the verb φανεροω (“to reveal oneself”, “to appear”) is again a Synoptic word; it does not appear in any of Jesus’s three meetings in John 20, but it is the verb of choice most interestingly in Mark 16:12 and 14, the so-called “Longer Ending” of the gospel, which was evidently added to Mark, very early versions of which apparently had no resurrection appearance – and I strongly suspect this “Longer Ending” also to be the work of the redactor of the Gospel of John, Polycarp, accomplished mainly by summarizing the Lukan accounts.

Third, the lake is called the Sea of Tiberias. This designation otherwise appears only once in this gospel, at 6:1, where, strangely, it is conjoined to the older name, the Sea of Galilee. As noted in the commentary to 6:1, the name “Sea of Tiberias” only grew common later than Jesus’s lifetime, as Rome strengthened its grip on the region and its imperial designations for major locations took hold. I concluded at 6:1 that this was an addition of the redactor for the sake of readers who, in the second century, might not have been familiar with the lake’s older name. I conclude the same thing again here.

Since the conclusion is therefore inevitable that this verse was composed by the redactor, in my restoration of the original gospel it was relegated to the Appendix, as was done with all other such verses. However, that created a problem. I did fill in a very few obvious lacunæ elsewhere in the text, where the very short missing phrases were obvious. But to reconstruct the greeting and statement of purpose from a disciple to his close personal friends, his “brothers”, that I believe opened the original letter would be much more than the mere minor repair of those small gaps elsewhere; it would go too far into outright creativity. Further, such a reconstructed beginning of the letter would interrupt the flow of the tale of Jesus’s post-resurrection meetings. Thus I decided the best solution was simply to leave the gap as it is, and let the reader accept the difficulties of the manuscript as something that cannot be at this late date satisfactorily overcome.

The other problem for the redactor in fitting the letter into the gospel was that the conclusion of the letter was not sufficiently sweeping and eloquent for the very last verse of the gospel – in fact, the end of chapter 20 was everything the end of 21 was not.

Some early manuscripts lack verse 21:25, which suggests that it was not a part of the original manuscript, at least not at the end of chapter 21. If chapter 21 was, as I theorize, written before the gospel (likely before even the idea of writing this gospel was under serious consideration), as a general letter, simply to explain the facts regarding Jesus’s rumored promise that Lazarus would never die, then this verse does not fit, since it presumes chapter 21 is located at the end of the entire gospel. The verse doesn’t fit thematically either, as discussed below.

It could be that the verse does not appear in some early gospel manuscripts because chapter 21 had some limited circulation as a letter, and those manuscripts adhered to that original form. If added later, the verse would have to have been added by the redactor to create a fitting conclusion for the gospel along the lines of the Envoi in 20:30-31. Verse 21:24 is a sufficient conclusion for chapter 21 as a separate work, a general letter, being the “signature” of the eyewitness, “who bears witness concerning all this” and of the amanuensis, “who has written these things”. It is not, however, a fitting conclusion for this great masterwork, the entire gospel. Yes, over the centuries the “all this” and “these things” have been usually considered to refer to the entire gospel, but a careful reading concludes that they refer specifically and only to the episode described in the general letter that became chapter 21 – and thus, the redactor properly felt the need for a more fittingly glorious conclusion here.

In bringing the letter into the gospel, I think the redactor faced a choice as regards its ending: he could have a: simply moved the Envoi at the end of 20 (as originally written; see below) to the end of 21, or b: written his own new conclusion to 21, but he decided instead c: to “stretch” the available material by the original author: to take just a part of the conclusion of 20, leaving the rest of it where he found it, and then to construct from it a second Envoi to go at the end of chapter 21, as much as possible using the original author’s words in both places.

The main supporting clue for this theory is the very similar phraseology throughout 20:30-31 and 21:24-25. All four verses stress the verb γραφω, “to write”. Verses 20:30 and 21:25 both have, with only slight differences in the Greek, the phrase και πολλα αλλα [σημεια] εποιησεν ο ιεσους (“also many other [signs] that Jesus did”), with the minor variations easily accounted for as conscious efforts by the redactor to vary the double-use of the same text, in order to avoid any obvious signs of verbatim copying. The sole exception to the consistency is not in wording but in topic; 21:24 is a certification that the events described in chapter 21 are true, and verse 25 switches abruptly to saying Jesus did so many signs that the cosmos could not contain all the descriptions of them. From these clues I conclude that Polycarp took part of the original 20:30 and worked it up to create 21:25, leaving at the end of 20 only part of the original 20:30, with 20:31 (assuming it is original) following immediately.

We can be sure that all of this material with the exception of 20:31 (discussed below) is genuine, first because it has a logical, integral flow, in the amanuensis’s familiar style, that leads inevitably from “Jesus did many other signs not written in this book” to its finish, that the world could not contain the books that could be written describing those other signs; and second, because it is a final recapitulation of the theology stressed throughout the gospel by its original author: that, as is Borges’s aleph, this gospel is a universal, a finite thing that contains all things in microcosm. Like a circle it appears finite from without, but from within it reveals its nature as infinite. The cosmos, the book says, could not contain all the books that would have to be written to describe all the signs (σημεια) that Jesus did, so this book, with the seven signs it describes (seven being a number that, as in John the Presbyter’s Revelation) symbolizes completeness, is by implication itself larger than the cosmos: and indeed it is, for as the gospel theology repeatedly states, it is a guide for finding our way out of the cosmos and into the Æon. And, as discussed in the Introduction, this gospel was written after Jesus was no longer on the earth, such that the message, as he so eloquently delivered it, might keep on being delivered. Therefore this gospel is in a way a living thing, his continued presence on earth, one that embraces all things within it. Thus it is confirmed that this gospel is the Paraclete.

The author was likely thinking, when composing verse 21:25b, of Ecclesiastes 12:12, which similarly introduces the conclusion of that work: “There is no end to the making of books,” it says, embracing infinity, “and”, it adds in an image that calls to mind Borges’s Library of Babel, “much interest in them is tiring to the flesh.” Indeed, the envoi of Ecclesiastes has more thematic closeness with this gospel than does John 20:31, since it describes its author’s efforts to search for proverbs (like 21:24, the amanuensis seeking the teachings of Jesus from the eyewitness) and put in the correct order (which the reader will remember John the Presbyter criticized John Mark for failing to do in the Gospel of Mark, his arrangement of Simon the Rock’s reminiscences) the words of truth (this gospel often stresses truth in relation to the Λογος, and certifies itself several times as true, 21:24 being an example at hand) given by “one shepherd” (a significant image in John 10) to “my son” (and this gospel has God giving the truth to Jesus as his son, and Jesus memorably adopts the eyewitness, Lazarus, as his own son at the crucifixion).

Verse 20:31 clearly picks up on the conversation with Thomas about believing (20:27-29), so I conclude that it is genuine; however, it feels not quite complete. Where, one wonders, is the core point of the Gospel of John’s theology, which one would reasonably expect the author to state at the very end (discounting the Epilogue) of this great work? That core point is that Jesus was sent by God to urge humanity to live in accordance with the Λογος, God’s plan for the universe, and thus become worthy to live in the Æon. The expectation of this core point is intensified because, as noted, the conclusion of Ecclesiastes (12:13-14), which immediately follows 12:12, the verse alluded to in John 21:25b, is closer to that core point than is John 20:31. It is possible that a continuation of 20:31 was contemplated but unwritten, or written but lost like many other verses in the years of the original manuscript’s peregrinations (the outer page of a codex is especially vulnerable to loss), or, far less likely, excised by the redactor, though he let other such statements remain in his revised gospel. However that central theology is restored if this reconstructed original follows one early manuscript, 01, which includes the word αιωνιον (Æonian), a word we associate with the author of the gospel, and not the redactor.

At the Last Supper, Jesus said of the Paraclete (Advocate) that “it will bear witness concerning me” (15:26) and “will teach you all things and will remind you of all the things that I said to you” (14:26). Here in 20:31, the gospel writer tells us that this work was written “so you might believe that Jesus is the Anointed One, the son of God, and that, by believing, you might have life in his name.” We are being emphatically told here that the gospel is that Paraclete. The gospel’s message here is that the gospel is the message.

James David Audlin (89 Posts)

Born in the Thousand Islands. Retired; after decades as a pastor, newspaper editor, university professor, caregiver, musician, editor. Most recently lived in southern France; now lives in rural mountainous Panama; married to a Spanish-speaking local lady. Two children in Vermont. Author of 18+ books, with a dozen more on the way.


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